With suicide and self-inflicted injuries being a leading cause of death for youth in Canada, it is increasingly important to change the way that we think and talk about mental health. It is even more urgent when we look at these rates in Indigenous youth, especially in the region. If you are a teacher or educator in the North, chances are you’ve encountered suicide in some form in your community.
In honour of World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10) here are some potential warning signs that a student might be thinking about suicide, and some hints and tips for talking about mental health with your students.
Uncharacteristic changes in their school work, friendships, or interests. If a once very outgoing student has suddenly become really quiet, has stopped hanging out with his friends as often and is spending more time alone, or decided not to play hockey this year, it’s more than worth it to check in with him.
Impulsive or risky behaviours. Substance abuse, uncharacteristic rebelliousness, out-of-the-blue aggression, or other sudden thrill-seeking behaviours could be a sign that the student feels hopeless about their life.
Talking, writing about, or making art relating to suicide or death. A student might drop a “hint” by saying something like “It doesn’t matter, I won’t be around much longer anyway,” or start to introduce themes of suicide or death in their assignments.
Outright suicidal behaviours. If a student talks about making a suicide plan, giving away possessions, or has started to self-harm, professional help needs to become involved and a risk assessment needs to be completed by a qualified mental health professional.
If it makes you nervous or uncomfortable to think about having such a challenging conversation with your students, just being aware of your tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions is a big step in the right direction. The way that we respond to our students is a major contributor to whether or not they will trust us enough to tell us how they’re really feeling. Giving them your full and undivided attention, keeping a relaxed posture, and showing empathy all communicate that you are listening and caring about what they have to say.
"You don’t have to worry about finding the perfect thing to say to them to make it all better; simply being there to listen could be helpful in and of itself."
You might worry that you won’t know what to say if a student shares with you that they are having thoughts of suicide. It’s completely understandable to be worried - you want to help your student, not make things worse. But you don’t have to worry about finding the perfect thing to say to them to make it all better; simply being there to listen could be helpful in and of itself. Don’t give advice, or try to give them a pep-talk either; it’s pretty likely that they’ve already heard this advice from someone else, or thought of it themselves. People don’t usually consider suicide unless they feel that they have no other options available to them.
It’s also okay to say that you don’t have an answer to the problem that they might be struggling with. Learn to sit in silence. It’s okay to be quiet.
The more that we talk about suicide and mental health, the less stigma there will be associated with it, and the more lives we can save.
If you are looking for more resources to help you with suicide or self-harm, check out the websites below.
First Nations Youth Suicide Prevention Curriculum - a Canadian-created curriculum for teaching suicide awareness and social-emotional learning and coping skills for First Nations youth.