Mental health and suicide: How to talk to pupils about a topical issue - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 7 June 2013

One in four people will experience mental illness at some stage in their lives. Data show that this issue is one that teachers in particular need to be aware of: the UK charity <a class=”none colour4” href=”” target=”_blank”>YoungMinds</a> cites Office for National Statistics data saying that one in 10 children of school age suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder.


Mental health and suicide: How to talk to pupils about a topical issue

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 7 June 2013


One in four people will experience mental illness at some stage in their lives. Data show that this issue is one that teachers in particular need to be aware of: the UK charity YoungMinds cites Office for National Statistics data saying that one in 10 children of school age suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder.

The topic of mental ill heath has been a high-profile one this week; Michael Jackson’s teenage daughter Paris has been hospitalised after a suicide attempt, while a few days ago UK television star and mental health campaigner Stephen Fry went public about a bid to end his own life last year.

While some may feel comfortable covering the issue of mental illness in the classroom, suicide is an extremely emotive and sensitive subject that can be difficult to broach. However, with two prominent stories in the news, it is possible that some students may come to teaching staff with questions about mental illness and suicide.

Much of the response to questions from students on this subject should depend on your knowledge of the individual child, their emotional intelligence and their personal circumstances, but we hope that these general tips will help you in formulating answers to any challenging questions that may come your way.

The most important thing to know is that talking about suicide will not put suicidal thoughts into anyone’s head. In fact, talking about suicide and the issues surrounding it can prove incredibly helpful for people.

One of the most common questions about dying by suicide concerns what that actually means. Younger students may not have come across the word before, while older students may not have a full understanding of what it means. One starting point may be to ask a child to explain what they believe the word means and what they have heard about it before. This way, you can dispel any myths and/or misconceptions they may have.

Phrases that you can use to explain suicide include “killing him/herself” or “took their own life” – try to avoid using euphemisms such as “gone away” or “gone to sleep” as this can be confusing and frightening for children.

Explaining why people choose to take their own life can also be a tricky subject to negotiate. Child psychologist Polly Dunn suggests a possible approach in her blog: “With kids, I have often compared it to a seemingly healthy person dying suddenly from a heart attack. Although they looked healthy on the outside, something was going wrong on the inside that we did not know about.”

Samaritans, a charity in the British Isles that provides emotional support to people who are in distress, also gives guidelines for appropriate language to use when talking about suicide attempts. It discourages referring to “successful” or “unsuccessful/failed” suicide attempts because of the connotations of those words. Talking about a “victim” of suicide or someone “committing suicide” is also best avoided, because of the implication in those words that suicide is an illegal or immoral act.

If you are worried about a child’s mental health and you would like ideas for how to start a conversation with them, Samaritans has produced a helpful booklet on schools and suicide, which includes details of organisations that you can refer children to if appropriate.

In addition, the National Association of School Psychologists in the US has put together a list of warning signs of youth suicide, which may prove useful.

If you are worried about your own, or a colleague’s, well-being, have a look at the TES Connect collection on managing your mental health, which has resources, articles and helpline information for teaching staff.



Starting difficult conversations: Advice from Samaritans

If you’re worried about a young person, try to get them to talk to you.

  • Often people want to talk, but won’t speak until someone asks how they are. Try asking open questions, like: "What happened about...", "Tell me about...", "How do you feel about..."
  • Repeat back what they say to show you understand and ask more questions.
  • Focus on their feelings instead of trying to solve the problem – it can be of more help and shows you care.
  • Respect what they tell you. Sometimes it’s easy to want to try and fix a young person’s problems, or give them advice. Try and let them make their own decisions.

TES Teacher Tip: It is important to alert the young person to the fact that you may not be able to keep what they tell you a secret if you believe them to be at risk.

Samaritans can be contacted 24 hours a day for confidential, non-judgmental emotional support.
Telephone: 08457 90 90 90
Email: jo@samaritans.org

Resources for you


Young person’s guide to anxiety

  • A guide from TES Connect partner Anxiety UK to help young people understand anxiety and how to cope with it.

Therapeutic storywriting

  • A video from TES Connect partner YoungMinds in Schools looking at a group of schools in Tottenham who are using therapeutic storywriting to support children’s emotional wellbeing.

Self-harm model policy

  • This self-harm policy has been developed in collaboration with teachers as a practice guide to help school staff recognise the warning signs of self-harm and put a clear procedure in place for managing and supporting cases of self-harm.

Whole school emotional wellbeing

  • This video from TES Connect partner YoungMinds looks at what primary and secondary schools in Tottenham are doing to support whole school emotional wellbeing.


Further news resources


First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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Doctor Who's titular character may negotiate intergalactic wars and interspecies friendships, one thing still remains beyond the limits of Time Lord possibility: gender equality.

The scientific riddle behind how the turtle came to have its shell finally might have been solved by a group of American scientists.



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