Letting go of life

21st June 2013 at 01:00
After Paris Jackson's apparent attempt to commit suicide, students may have questions about this difficult subject

Paris Jackson is recovering after an apparent suicide attempt. The 15-year-old daughter of the late singer Michael Jackson was said to be worried about forthcoming exams and sad as the fourth anniversary of her father's death approaches.

"Being a sensitive 15-year-old is difficult no matter who you are," a spokesman for the Jackson family said. Paris (pictured) is physically well and is receiving appropriate medical attention.

But what makes young people feel that life is no longer worth living? British charity YoungMinds says that one in 10 children of school age suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder.

With Paris Jackson's story in the news, some students may approach teaching staff for support. They may have questions about a family member's troubles - or their own. So how should you respond? And how can issues of mental health be explored in the classroom?

One of the most common questions about suicide - even from older students - is what the term actually means. Ask your students to explain what they believe it to mean and what they have previously heard about it. Correct any misconceptions that they have.

Explaining why some people choose to take their own lives can be tricky. 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."

In the classroom, a discussion on mental health could form an introduction to the troubled poets of the 19th century, or to an exploration of mental illness and stress, or to a study of areas of the brain in a science lesson.

Suicide is a sensitive issue but many organisations offer helpful advice. The Samaritans, a charity in the UK and Ireland, has produced a booklet, Help When We Need It Most: how to prepare and respond to suicide in schools, which includes details of organisations that children can be referred to if appropriate (bit.lySamaritansBooklet).

The National Association of School Psychologists in the US offers guidance on how to help prevent youth suicide, including a list of warning signs (bit.lySignsOfSuicide).

Research has shown that discussing suicide does not provoke suicidal feelings among children. So, as long as you tread carefully, class discussions on the subject can be thought-provoking and helpful.


If you are worried about a young person, encourage them to talk to you. Here's how:

Often children want to talk but won't until someone asks how they are. Try open questions such as "What happened about ...?", "Tell me about ..." or "How do you feel about ...?"

Summarise their answers to show that you understand, then ask further questions.

Focusing on their feelings instead of trying to solve the problem can be more helpful and shows that you care.

Respect what they tell you and try to let them make their own decisions.

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

For further advice, visit www.samaritans.org.

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