What makes young people want to commit suicide, and, crucially, how can we prevent it? Jenni Whitehead looks at research and approaches to helping

In the aftermath of the suicides of young people in Bridgend, Wales, where 19 young people under the age of 27 have hanged themselves, a suicide prevention project is to be set up using nearly one million pounds of lottery funding. Quite separately, the Samaritans is in the early stages of developing a suicide and self-harm response kit for schools, and has opened a consultation process to which anyone with relevant experience can contribute.

It is difficult to understand why a young person commits suicide, but the most recent statistics suggest that in the UK, more than 600 young people die by suicide each year. Suicide attempts don’t make headlines, but their scale is noted in research on the Samaritans website: ‘A conservative estimate is that there are 24,000 cases of attempted suicide by adolescents (10-19 years) each year in England and Wales, which is one attempt every 20 minutes (Hawton et al, 1999b)’.

How can education staff help?
Professionals and particularly school-based staff need to be aware of signs and indicators of deep depression and suicidal thoughts and how to help young people cope and seek help.

Depression and other problems can manifest themselves from early childhood onwards: research estimates that one in five children have psychological problems. Acute mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often begin during the later teenage years. Although, thankfully, suicide is a rare occurrence, episodes of self-harm and/or suicidal behaviour are not – research suggests that one in 10 among 15- to16-year-olds in the UK and Ireland have self-harmed.

Early intervention can prevent situations from escalating and schools are ideally placed to both recognise children and young people at risk and offering support in-house and through involvement with external agencies. To this end, the Samaritans have produced a flexible teaching resource called DEAL (Developing Emotional Awareness and Learning), for use with 14- to 16-year-olds, which can be downloaded from the Samaritans website. Many of their branches also offer talks in schools, to students, staff or parents.

Factors in suicidal feelings
The children’s charity ChildLine, run by the NSPCC, has recently published research, Saving Young Lives, that draws on information from calls to their helpline during the course of one year.
Suicide was recorded by ChildLine counsellors as an additional risk when the following were noted as the main problem: bullying (337), sexual abuse (277), physical abuse (231), self harm (27), eating disorder (18).

Behaviours and situations that could indicate risk of suicide in young people

The following list is offered as a guide and not as a diagnostic tool. Many of the behaviours given here are indicators that something is wrong and suicidal thoughts might not be the only issue:

  • change in sleeping or eating habits
  • violent or rebellious behaviour, or running away
  • drinking to excess or misusing drugs
  • feelings of boredom, restlessness, self hatred
  • failing to take care of personal appearance
  • withdrawal from friends, family and usual interests
  • complaints about headaches, stomach aches, tiredness or other
  • physical symptoms
  • unresolved feelings of grief following the loss of an important person or pet (including idols such as pop stars and other ’heroes’)
  • self-harm
  • talking about methods of suicide
  • dwelling on insoluble problems
  • giving away possessions
  • hints that ’I won’t be around’ or ’I won’t cause you any more trouble’
  • becoming over-cheerful after a time of depression.

On top of this, research suggests that certain situations put young people at more risk of suicide. These include:

  • loss, bereavement or the break-up of a relationship
  • living in an isolated rural area
  • going to prison
  • the experience of racism or a culture clash
  • struggling with sexual identity
  • a history of suicide in the family
  • illness or disablement
  • previous suicide attempts
  • unhappy circumstances at work, school or home, including bullying
  • fear of underachievement
  • a combination of any of the above.

Gender issues
The Saving Young Lives report describes massive gender differences. Young women attempt suicide four times as often as young men, but around four times as many young men die of suicide.

Most of the research about suicide recognises the higher risk of death by suicide for young men but this can lead to a misconception that young women are less likely to attempt it, which may cause less attention being given to them.

ChildLine also reports that four times more girls than boys call ChildLine, suggesting that girls are much more likely than boys to seek help through talking to someone. Samaritans research reveals that over 60% of teenage boys don’t know what to do when someone becomes emotional towards them, over 40% of girls don’t know how to react to someone who’s upset, and more than half of teenagers don’t know how to express their feelings – they can only stick to the facts when they talk about their problems.

According to the Samaritans’ 1999 report Young Men Speak Out, the rates of male suicide in all age groups and in most countries have shown a striking increase since the 1970s, but this is most marked among 15- to 24-year-olds. In many parts of the world, in this age group it has become the second most frequent cause of death after accident.

As most secondary teachers know, things that seem insignificant or even trivial to adults can be of monumental importance to young people, who may get them totally out of proportion. It is important therefore to recognise and take seriously young people’s worries even if they appear to be over the top to us as adults.

The ChildLine report suggests that the greatest risk of a repeat suicide attempt is within a few months of the first. Young people pretend they are fine and recovered, and their family are so relieved that their child survived that they develop a false sense of optimism. Young people are especially vulnerable in the period following action against people who have bullied them or hurt them in some other way. This is the time that schools can play an important role in making sure that their vigilance is heightened. Unfortunately, the calls that ChildLine receives suggest a very different story, with many callers feeling let down by people to whom they have gone for help and support.

How to broach the subject
If you have a concern that a young person is feeling suicidal, approach them; do not wait for them to come forward, as they may not feel able to. Tell them that you are concerned about them and ask what is wrong. ChildLine makes the following suggestions:

Ask: ‘How do you feel?’ or ‘How bad do you feel?’
Say: ‘Sometimes people feel suicidal; do you ever feel like that?’

If the young person displays anger at your suggestion that something may be wrong, don’t take this to mean that you are wrong to have the concern. Young people in this situation may not be able to accept the first offer of help, especially if they have been let down by others they have sought help from.

If the young person storms off refusing to talk to you, don’t give up on them, try again.

Say: ‘I am sorry I upset you but I am still concerned about you.’ If the young person still refuses to talk to you, try to help them identify someone whom they could talk to; you might suggest ChildLine if they feel that they cannot talk to someone face-to-face.

Some young people find it easier to write things down rather than telling someone directly, and some young people are better talking while they are doing some form of activity, rather than having to make eye contact.

If the young person starts telling you what is troubling them, listen and take it seriously, and make it clear that you care about them. Don’t make light of it or be judgemental. Don’t assume that intelligence will protect someone from suicidal thoughts.

Confidentiality
If a young person talks to a member of staff about wanting to commit suicide, there can be no room for total confidentiality. Try to help the young person identify who needs to know about their concerns/ worries/ depression, but make it clear that you can not keep it confidential. Try to encourage the young person to talk to people who care for them; you might offer to be with them when they tell, but make sure they understand that if they are not able to say anything, you will have to, because you care about them. If a young person says they will talk to their parent or another carer you need to check that they have done so. Remember: The ground rule in child protection is that you cannot unknow what you have come to know.

Consider who you will need to talk to, this may include: the young person’s parents, children’s social care, CAMHS, the young person’s GP, school nurse, school counsellor. Check your confidentiality policy for advice about young people expressing suicidal thoughts; does it cover this scenario?

Peer group support
Many schools have developed peer counselling support networks, recognising that children and young people may feel more able to talk to their peer group. Young people involved in offering such support need to know what to do if they think a young person may be contemplating suicide. Some schools run a listening service, for example, with active listening skills training for young people so that they can be available in small teams at set times to offer support to other young people in the school.

ChildLine reports that they get a large number of calls from young people concerned about their friend. Where this happens in school, such concerns should be taken seriously and reported to the named child protection person. Friends often need a lot of reassurance that they have done the right thing in telling and may need ongoing support and in some cases counselling.

ChildLine runs an outreach project called CHIPS (ChildLine in Partnership with Schools), which works with more than 800 secondary schools to help young people get involved in issues that affect their lives. These may include anti-bullying and anti-racism strategies. CHIPS encourages children and young people to be a source of help for each other by running – for instance – befriending and peer support. (For more information on CHIPS, visit the Childline website.)

The internet
Some young people will seek help from the internet. There are plenty of websites about suicide, many of which aim to help people through periods of suicidal thoughts, but young people do need guidance about which would be most appropriate:

Here are some useful sites that help young people to manage their mental health issues:

Next steps
Schools can take an active role in suicide prevention by:

  • developing a listening and helping ethos.
  • ensuring that all staff know how to report their concerns or information about young people at risk of suicide
  • developing peer group counselling
  • developing strong links with helping agencies
  • making sure helpline numbers such as ChildLine and Samaritans are displayed
  • taking young people’s concerns seriously.

Reading the ChildLine publication Saving Young Lives is a very good starting point

Resources

  • The following publications can be downloaded and ordered from the Papyrus website:
    • Thinking of Ending It All? – A booklet for a young person who has contemplated suicide, explaining why they may be feeling like this, what can be done and where to get help.
    • Coping with Exams.
    • Listen to Me – A leaflet produced by the members of Young PAPYRUS to facilitate better communication between parents and their children.
    • Don’t Die of Embarrassment – A teacher’s resource pack for young people of 13+ intended for use as part of a programme of emotional development. Contains video/DVD, teacher’s notes and lesson plans.
  • So Young, So Sad, So Listen by Philip Graham and Carol Hughes. Royal College of Psychiatrists. 978-1-904671-23-7, £7.50
    • Promoting Children’s Mental Health within Early Years and School Settings. DCSF Publications, ref: 0112/2001

We are unable to publish reader comments about individual child protection concerns on this website. If you are worried about a child please call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 for help and advice. Alternatively you can contact your Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) through your local council.

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