Suicide in children is rare, but it does happen. Suicide is possible in children who have yet to hit puberty, and even more likely after the onset of puberty. As infrequently as it does occur, and as tragic as it is, it is possible that one of your students will commit suicide. Depending on the age of your student population, the warning signs can be very difficult to detect. The effect a student suicide can have on the other students, as well as the faculty, can be tremendous – and the response of the school can play a tremendous role in the recovery of those left behind.
Traumatic events can trigger suicidal tendencies in children. These events may include exposure to violence or a sudden or traumatic loss. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, violent attacks on themselves or a family member, or a personal crisis may become a trigger for a student. Specific warning signs include:
- Change in behavior – becoming withdrawn, increased absenteeism, lack of interest in activities, and isolation from peers.
- Change in conduct – the student’s grades and work effort may begin to drop or drop suddenly.
- Depression – when a child feels helpless or that a specific situation is hopeless.
- Final arrangements –children and adolescents may begin giving away treasured possessions rather than making a will.
- Physical changes – changes in appearance, appetite, weight, hygiene, and sleep patterns.
- Prior attempts – previous attempts of committing suicide or of hurting oneself.
- Risk-taking – actions that are excessively dangerous or aggressive and the use of alcohol and drugs can all be used to mask depression.
- Suicide notes – these can include notes meant to be left behind after the event, diary entries, letters to friends or journal writing entries at school
- Threats – verbal threats or comments indicating a desire to die, to be dead, or that others would benefit from the death of the student.
For children under the age of 10, it is very hard to detect warning signs because it is most often an impulsive act. However, there does seem to be a connection between higher rates and children who have difficulty with impulse control or children with a mood or conduct disorder.
Effect on other Students
The loss of a fellow student can be devastating for classmates, regardless of the reason. When it is an accident, it may be easier to find something to rally around such as bike safety, cancer awareness, or drunk driving prevention. When a student chooses to take his or her own life, it can be more difficult for students to cope with because they may feel personally responsible for not preventing the act. These feelings may lead other students to become depressed and even suicidal as well.
Schools need to have a plan in place for how to contact students, staff, and parents in case there is a student suicide. This will help control rumors and increase the odds that students will be in a safe and loving environment when they receive the news. Trauma and grief counselors should be brought in for the staff, parents, and students. The adults will not only need counseling for their own loss, they will also need training on how to interact with the grieving students. A memorial service should be planned for the students at the school to give them closure and a safe place to grieve. After the initial tragedy, continue to make students aware that the school therapist is available to talk with them at any time and what outside sources are available for them in the community.