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Men's Mental Health

Recognizing Warning Signs and Finding Students Who Need Mental Health Support

Photo: Courtesy of Annie Spratt

After the tragedy of youth suicide, one often hears the phrase, “There were no warning signs.” In truth, most of the time, there are recognizable red flags for when someone is considering suicide. As individuals and communities, we must be aware of those signals, and know how to respond when they arise. Schools can be the best setting for this education.

Why schools? Schools are where adolescents spend most of their time and where they have a built-in support system of caring adults. It’s also a place where teens are accustomed to getting information about health and wellness. While parents and others in the medical community play vital roles in supporting teen mental health, when it comes to prevention, schools are best positioned to educate and empower the largest number of students and educators before a crisis occurs.

Discussing suicide risk

It’s important to start by recognizing that no community is immune from the risk of youth suicide. It can be difficult to accept the idea that students in one’s school are considering suicide.  Yet the most recent research from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2015 shows that many are considering it, and some even have a plan. Statistics show that 17 percent of students surveyed reported considering suicide in the past 12 months, while 15 percent reported having a plan for how they would attempt suicide. 9 percent of students surveyed attempted suicide, and 2.8 percent had a suicide attempt that necessitated hospital treatment.

Some worry that bringing up mental health and suicide risk can create issues where they hadn’t existed or lead to dangerous behavior. In fact, many years of research show just the opposite. Research into one suicide prevention program showed that education around suicide prevention reduced suicide attempts by 64 percent.

Helping to prevent suicide

Having worked in the field for over 40 years, I have found that the most effective approach in suicide prevention involves three essential steps. The first is universal screening, as screening all students with a quick, validated questionnaire for depression and suicide risk helps school staff in identifying which students need help.

Another step is toward education. Youth are most likely to turn to their peers in times of crisis, thus a peer-to peer approach designed to teach them the differences between typical adolescent moods and depression, and how to recognize and address the warning signs of suicide, is most effective.

A third and final approach in prevention is a supportive school environment. Educators must create and maintain an atmosphere in which students watch out for each other and take action when it is needed.

Such an approach can make a critical difference for youth at risk when it matters most, and instill a sense of community and support that will help students throughout their whole lives.

Dr. Jacobs is considered a national expert on suicide.

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