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Op-ed: Teachers talking to students about suicide

Sometimes it can become stressful for teachers and educators to navigate a conversation about suicide with both students and their families.

As many teachers have not studied psychology, social work or counselling, they may feel that they struggle to communicate about such a sensitive topic.

This story was originally published in our Term 1 issue: read the full magazine here. 

The suicide of a young person has a long and lasting impact on their friends and peers, their families, schools and communities. Talking to young people about suicide can feel daunting and many people fear it will cause increased distress or even lead to the development of suicidal thoughts or suicide ‘contagion’. However, it is important to note that talking about suicide in a calm and straightforward way, as well as providing information and support, is actually very important in helping young people to manage their feelings and allows them to make sense of what has happened.

The aim is to limit the harmful impact of the death and to promote positive coping strategies and good mental health.

Suicide is a complex behaviour caused by a range of factors and is rarely the result of a single event or problem. Many people who suicide would have experienced mental health difficulties such as depression leading up to their death. This condition can make people feel hopeless and impact on their ability to think clearly and rationally. Identifying the link between mental illness and suicide when addressing a death in their school community can encourage young people to seek help for themselves or others, which will decrease the risk of suicide.

Suicide can elicit a range of emotional and behavioural responses and young people often want answers about why a suicide has occurred, which can lead to them blaming the death on a particular event or person. It is crucial to explain that suicide is not simple and is often the result of a range of contributing factors. This can reduce the likelihood that blaming or scapegoating will occur.

Importantly, talking graphically about how the suicide took place should be avoided at all costs. Detailed descriptions of the death can not only be distressing and overwhelming, but can also increase the risk of imitation by vulnerable young people. We recommend focussing on how to manage the emotions brought up by the persons death and away from details of how someone has died.

READ MORE: Anxiety, ASD and meeting special student needs

It is important that we highlight that it is okay to talk about suicide in and outside of the classroom in response to the needs of students. In the classroom, the discussion of suicide may come up at unexpected times and could be seen to take up valuable teaching time but it should not be made into a prohibited topic.

Teachers need to acknowledge what has happened and reiterate that this type of experience is likely to affect people in different ways. It is also important to include in these discussions messages that outline options to seek help and positive coping strategies.

Research shows suicide risk in schools is an increasing concern and no school is immune. This indicates that we need to continue to work with educators to build mental health literacy and help them to develop the skills to identify and respond to risk when they see it.

READ MORE: Don’t say “passed away”: handling suicide and grief for teachers

With suicide unfortunately remaining the leading cause of death for young people aged between 5-17 years of age, Headspace has teamed up with Beyondblue and Early Childhood Australia (ECA) to develop the Be You initiative, which provides teachers and educators in early learning services and schools with online resources including a guiding framework, building blocks, and professional learning modules. All this is backed up by direct support from a team of consultants across all states and territories.

Returning to school can play an important part in a young person’s recovery following a suicide attempt, so we encourage all schools to develop a Return to School Student Support Plan to help them establish a safe and supportive learning environment for the young person.

Headspace is committed to reducing suicide among young people and know that improving help-seeking and early intervention is a proven pathway to suicide prevention. When support is accessed in the early stages of distress or suicidal thinking, young people are best placed to recover quickly, and learn lifelong coping strategies.

We know that with the right support, young people can get things back on track and it can start with the conversations teachers have with their students.

Resources for teachers

Headspace has a range of free resources online at headspace.org.au/schools/resources/supporting-students/. Teachers can also head to www.beyou.edu.au for free resources about how to create a holistic approach to mental health and wellbeing within schools.

More national youth support services:

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 www.kidshelpline.com.au

ReachOut.com: www.au.reachout.com 

More national 24/7 crisis support services:

Lifeline: 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au

Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978 www.mensline.org.au


Kristen Douglas

Kristen Douglas is the head of Headspace in Schools, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation. If you or someone you know is struggling, visit headspace.org.au to find your nearest centre or call eheadspace on 1800 650 890. Headspace in schools (in partnership with beyondblue) implements a suicide post-vention service that assists Australian school communities to prepare for, respond to and recover from the death of a student by suicide.

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