Suicide Prevention: the School’s Role

By Edith Morgan

Edith and family

In my experience, the best preventer of suicide among the young is a caring and supportive adult: teacher, relative, best friend and, of course, a warm, understanding and aware family.

Do we have school counselors in all our schools? Or do we have enough school psychologists in the system so we can do interventions right in school? Is our system flexible enough so that when a student feels at the end of his/her rope, someone is there to listen and help?

I became a foster parent quite by accident: I was a teacher and my then-husband (since deceased) was the system’s psychologist. One day he was informed by the high school home economics teacher that one of her students was threatening to take a whole bottle of pills (aspirin, I think) because she could not go on. She was referred to my husband, who ascertained that the problem was home: her stepfather had threatened to kill her if she complained to anyone – She had finally worked up the courage to say something – but now was in great danger if she went home after school.

At that time, there was not the crushing bureaucracy and paperwork we now have, so my husband made arrangements to place her in the hospital, while something could be worked out for her. As we were the only ones she knew (her stepfather had kept her completely isolated), when the social worker at the hospital asked where she wanted to live, she asked if she could live with us.

She was 17, and she became a member of our family and completed school. I will not go into the details, which would make a fascinating story all on their own.

I bring up this example because I feel strongly that we need to be very cautious about whom we notify when there is a suspected suicide attempt. In all my years as a foster parent and teacher, most of the cause is either the student’s home or bullying by peers – which has gotten much worse in recent years because of the ease and anonymity of computers.

The first task af anyone at the school should be to give support to the student, find out why suicide seems to be the only way out, and then decide what help is needed. This takes a professionally trained person – and the important thing is NOT to notify family, until we know exactly what the causes are.

Too often it is unfortunately the family that is the cause, and too many students need protection from their own.

The other problem, bullying, either in person or on Facebook/social media, should be dealt with at the school – often it is a classmate or a group of them, and the school counselor, with the teacher, needs to get to the bottom of this behavior. Again, there is really very little that the parents can do, but there is much that counselors and psychologists can do.

The first priority should be the victim, and then attempts can be made to remedy the situation.

I would be very strongly opposed to involving police, or anyone having police powers in the school. Most teachers are aware of the kind of turmoil some of their students are experiencing and should have enough leeway to follow their hearts and offer help without judging.

Our schools are quite rigid and authoritarian, and therefore it is too easy to just overlook and even punish or ridicule those who can not always cope with everything that comes their way.
So many of our students today carry great burdens. But, if at least in their school day, they are able to find a safe and accepting haven, many will make it – not as great test takers, but as functioning human beings.