When it comes to child mental health issues, suicide can be one of the most difficult topics to broach. However, as a recent ChildLine report details, documented instances of children having suicidal thoughts are on the increase, making it all the more important for teachers to feel comfortable talking about this potentially distressing issue.
How widespread is the issue?
ChildLine delivered 34,517 counselling sessions on suicide in 2013-14. The number of such sessions has risen sharply, by 18 per cent compared with the previous academic year and by 116 per cent compared with 2010-11.
Of these sessions, nearly 6,000 were with young people who said they had previously attempted suicide.
The biggest increase has been in the number of sessions with girls reporting suicidal feelings – up 142 per cent since 2010-11. The number of similar sessions with boys has also increased during that time, by 32 per cent.
Why are so many children having suicidal feelings?
In its report, ChildLine says three reasons come up commonly in discussions of suicidal feelings: relationship breakdowns, loneliness and abuse.
The charity also highlights the role of the internet. In addition to well-publicised issues such as online bullying, the report mentions the ready availability of graphic blogs and videos relating to suicide and self-harm. This, the report states, “normalised such behaviour, making young people believe it was a viable way out of their desperate situation”.
However, although this provides an idea of common themes in discussions of suicidal feelings, it is important to remember that there is no single cause for those feelings.
How does school life factor in to this?
According to ChildLine’s statistics, the highest number of counselling sessions about suicide took place on Sundays and Mondays between 8pm and 10pm.
The foreword to the report says: “The stigma of suicide means that the adults in [young people’s] lives (including professionals) are failing to spot the signs, finding it hard to listen to their distress, and are sometimes providing inadequate levels of support.” In 19 per cent of ChildLine’s sessions, young people said they had felt unable to talk to anyone about their suicidal feelings – and boys are more likely to keep their feelings to themselves than girls.
What can people working in education do to help?
ChildLine suggests several ways for teachers and support staff to respond when a child presents with suicidal feelings, including:
- Awareness: know the signs that may point to a child feeling suicidal; have the confidence to act on any worries and talk to a child about them.
- Patience and consistency: don’t expect young people to open up straight away and don’t give up if your support doesn’t result in the eradication of their negative feelings. Ask the young person how helpful they are finding your support.
- Ask questions: ask students how they’re feeling and how you can help.
- See the young person: don’t define a young person by their suicidal feelings – and don’t only ask questions that focus on these concerns.
- Give advice and support: this can range from information on local services and support, offering to initiate a call to these organisations or making an appointment for the child.
- Allow the young person as much control as possible: give the child the option of deciding for themselves what they want to do and, if that's not possible, try to keep them involved in decision making.
- Listen and understand: clarify and summarise what young people tell you, and follow up with appropriate questions. Respond in a non-judgemental, empathetic manner.
- Get support: make sure you are supported when helping a young person through a difficult time. You can talk colleagues, to a dedicated helpline – such as the NSPCC (0808 800 5000) or Papyrus’ HopeLineUK (0800 068 4141) – or to a general emotional support line, such as The Samaritans (08457 90 90 90 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
What support is available if a child does take their own life?
The Samaritans provides a local support service for schools that have experienced a death by suicide within their community. The Step by Step programme offers practical support and advice to schools in preparing for and reacting to the repercussions of suicide.
More information is available at the Samaritans’ website.
Relevant resources from TES
A guide from Anxiety UK to help young people understand how worry and stress can affect them and how to cope with it.
Use this as part of an introduction to mental health issues; it contains advice on how a positive attitude can help.
Watch how some of London’s primary and secondary schools are supporting pupils’ emotional well-being in this video.
This lesson from Childnet focuses on helping children to understand what cyberbullying is and what action they should take if it happens to them.