During one of my early years teaching, a student wrote a short story assignment for my class about committing suicide. Her story was very specific, including waiting for her twin sister to leave the house to do the deed. I dismissed this story as a work of her creative mind. I pegged her as the quieter, deeper “goth” twin of the two, and I rationalized that no one who had an identical twin/automatic best friend could possibly be without a support system and honestly be considering suicide. I ignored it.
The following year, this student attempted suicide. She was thankfully unsuccessful, and received the mental help she needed, but I’ll never forget my emotions when I heard what she had done. If I had just turned her essay over to the school counselors, even if I hadn’t talked to her directly, she may have gotten help sooner. If she hadn’t gotten help, I don’t know what I would have done. Knowing I ignored her cry for help, I may have quit teaching altogether. I was so concerned about the awkwardness of talking to someone about this issue that I did nothing, and hoped someone else would step in to help this young woman. I passed the buck. And I hated myself for it.
Nothing in my teacher preparation training involved this issue. My Ivy League program touted itself as “teaching for social justice,” and yet while I remember discussing in lecture how to work inclusively with immigrant and LGBTQ students, I don’t remember anything about suicide (even though 42.8% of these youth seriously considered suicide in the prior year – CDC). This was an inexcusable oversight.
A few weeks ago I attended a suicide prevention class for my teaching license renewal. The state of Indiana now requires all teachers to undergo such training, and I think it is an incredibly valuable requirement. If I had taken such a class before I started teaching, I would have taken that student’s writing seriously and gotten her help.
The training my district uses is called the QPR method: Question. Persuade. Refer. The first thing that I as a teacher have to do is directly question a student about suicidal thoughts. I have to ask: Are you considering suicide? I then persuade them to get help, and then refer them to the appropriate resource, making sure they actually follow through by accompanying them to a mental health professional or getting them to someone who will go with them.
We did some paired role playing as part of this training that illustrated how incredibly awkward the conversation can feel at first. One teacher played the student and was given a secret “back story” that the other teacher was supposed to try to draw out and apply the QPR method. My partner and I did not do a great job. I thought I had asked her the right questions and she wasn’t suicidal, but after looking at her info card when we were done, I discovered her fictitious student evaded my questions and had an actual plan to commit suicide. As an educator, I missed it all. This is a terrifying thought. But it is so uncomfortable to look at someone and ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” I couldn’t do it in that conversation, even though it was just pretend. My instinct was to fix her problems and make her feel better, but that isn’t what I need to be doing. I need to ask the hard question. If a student isn’t considering suicide, she will say so. If she is, then I’ve made a bigger step than I may realize.
When I started teaching English, I didn’t know how often students reach out through their writing. I think it is even more important for English teachers to receive some extra student resource and counseling training, because often we get to know our students better because kids literally write their problems out. The teachers in my session discussed this at length, as nearly every English teacher in the room had experienced this in our classes.
Another major takeaway from my QPR class is that talking about suicide does not put the idea in a student’s head and increase risk. We realized this just from our class; we spent a whole two hours discussing it, and it didn’t lead me to consider taking my life. If a student is considering suicide, they are often grateful that someone else brings it up first. The don’t WANT to kill themselves; they just don’t see another way out. Putting the topic of suicide on the table often gives students relief. They have been feeling so isolated and alone, and now they are not.
Another myth I had succumbed to in my prior experience was thinking that a student with a support system won’t try to hurt themselves. Just because they HAVE a support system doesn’t mean they are utilizing it, or even realize it is there. How often do the family members and friends left behind think, “Why didn’t she say something? I would have helped!” I have not watched or read 13 Reasons Why, though I now think I should because so many of my students have seen it. Students might use the hashtag #KMS – Kill Myself – or other indirect verbal cues that may sound sarcastic but should still be taken seriously. We talked about social media use, and how students may appear to have lots of “friends” and connections online, but actually feel even more isolated. Helping students see that they do have a support system – that I am part of that system – is crucial to giving them a ray of light in their darkness.
If a student admits to me that yes, he has thought about not living anymore, then I have the responsibility to that student to see that he gets help. I don’t have to try to solve his problem; in fact, I’m not remotely qualified and shouldn’t attempt. But I can listen, and not interrupt. I should not rush to judgment or be afraid. And then I can persuade him to get help, ideally by accompanying him directly to the resource, but I can also offer to make the appointment for him, or be there when we talk to his parents or school counselor about getting help.
My school has a close relationship with a local Christian counseling organization called Cross Connections, and a trained counselor has regular hours at the high school to meet with students. In Northeast Indiana, the Lutheran Foundation sponsors an initiative called LookUp Indiana both directing people to help locally and through an anonymous online chat or texting service (they just need to text LOOKUP to 494949). People are starting to talk about this taboo subject more, and social media companies like Facebook have come up with a way for friends to report suicidal behavior, either through a form or can report on individual posts that sound concerning. Everyone, especially teachers, should have the National Suicide Hotline number in their phones and posted in their classrooms – 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If I find myself in the room with a student who has just admitted to me they are considering suicide, and I blank on all other resources, we can call that number together and get help.
Learn the signs to look for, and ask the questions. Once I learned the signs, I recalled all kinds of students I should have reached out to who may have been at risk. They did not kill themselves, but what if one of them was considering it? What if they were lost and felt alone and I missed an opportunity to minister to one of God’s children? Get the training. Even if you only have the conversation with one person, that is one life you helped save.
The QPR Institute offers an hour-long online course to teach this method, and Psychology Today did a nice overview of it here. I highly, highly recommend it, but at least spend some time on the Suicide Prevention Lifeline site to learn about signs to look for and resources available to help.