Talking About Suicide and Self-Harm in Schools Can Save Lives

Posted on October 24, 2017

According to recent statistics, eight children and young people die by suicide each week in Australia, and one in ten self-harm during their teenage years. These statistics alone show that the topic of suicide is too important not to talk about, but nonetheless remains taboo. Parents and teachers are often concerned that talking about suicide or self-harm may put ideas in young, impressionable minds.
The World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10) and RUOK Day (September 14) campaigns are encouraging people to have honest conversations about suicide and mental health. To do so, we need to dispel the myths that encourage silence on these topics.

Do it for the attention
A prevailing myth about self-harm is that people do it for attention. If we follow this logic, we can assume that we will naturally identify those who are engaging in self-harm or considering suicide. Overwhelmingly, research does not support this idea. Only around half of young people who self-harm disclose the behavior to anyone. Young people often go to great lengths to hide self-harm.
In reality, it can be very hard to admit self-harm or suicidal thoughts. People may fear a negative response or worry that information will be spread without their consent. Additionally, some young people may not view their behavior as a problem. Self-harm is often a way of trying to cope with overwhelming emotions, and some people may feel that this strategy is “working”.

Looking for signs
Teachers and parents might be on the look-out for warning signs for self-harm or suicide, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or experiencing stressful life events. However, our recent research highlights that not all young people who self-harm fit this profile. Yes, we need to keep an eye out for self-harm, suicidal behavior, and other mental health difficulties, but unfortunately this is not enough.
As a community, we need proactive, positive strategies to reduce youth self-harm and suicide. Schools are on the front line of this work because they provide the greatest access to young people.

Discussing self-harm and suicide encourages it
This is a common concern from school staff and parents. However, there is emerging evidence suggesting that selected self-harm and suicide programs in fact do not increase self-harm thoughts or behaviors, but rather reduce suicide attempts and severe suicidal ideation. It also improves knowledge and attitudes and increases help-seeking behavior.

Ongoing research is needed to strengthen the evidence for prevention programs, by taking into account youth perspectives and measuring suicide and self-harm related outcomes. At this point in time, research findings indicate that schools can talk about self-harm and suicide positively and safely when approached in the right way.
The key factor is building supportive communities so that young people are willing to disclose self-harm and suicidal thoughts. On average, a teenager spends 30+ hours a week at school, but being around people does not automatically provide genuine connection, where each young person feels safe and supported. This isn’t an easy task to accomplish, but it should not be neglected among the hustle of programs and policies.
One counter-argument of talking about self-harm and suicide is that discussing these topics will result in identifying new cases that were previously unknown to the school. While this is a positive outcome, it can place a greater burden on already stretched welfare teams. Therefore, schools should prepare ensuring staff know the protocols following disclosure, and establishing good relationships with external services.

Evidence-based self-harm and suicide prevention programs have to be implemented in schools nationwide. Research and practice indicates that programs should be framed within broader mental health programs that focus on protective behaviors and strengthening resilience. Programs should be available to all students, not just those who appear to be at risk. Programs should educate and empower, and should not include graphic images or graphic descriptions of behavior.

Talking about self-harm and suicide isn’t easy, but it’s a conversation that can save lives.

Category(s):Self-Harm, Suicide Prevention, Teenage Issues

Source material from The Conversation