LOVE LIFE: Engaging with Suicidal Students

Posted on by YFC Seattle

By Warren Mainard and Mark Haug

You have noticed some warning signs that a student may be having suicidal ideations.  You take a step to engage in a deeper conversation about what the student is experiencing, and he/she begins to open up.  How do you listen well? What are the right responses to a student in a critical place emotionally, mentally and spiritually?

6 Principles for Engaging With Suicidal Students

  1. Commit to Listen: Parents and Youth Leaders must commit to become masters in the art of listening to, not talking at, to students. "About the worst thing you can do is to dismiss suicidal feeling with casual reassurance," says Dr. Ronald Diamond, professor of psychiatry in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "That just emphasizes that no one understands the pain the person is feeling." Avoid knee jerk responses to irrational or untrue statements students may make in this position but allow them to feel heard and express in entirety their current perspective on their life and issues.

    "Give the person a chance to talk about wanting to die and wanting to live before helping them decide to live." To elicit the most helpful information, Diamond advises adopting an attitude of "gentle assumption,” assuming that they may already have thought about a plan.

    "Instead of being shocked, ask things such as, ‘In what ways have you thought of killing yourself?" he says. "Gently assume a specific behavior."
  2. Invite into a Relationship and Community:Don’t tell anyone.” Most students feel shame about their suicidal ideations.  Their preference is generally to keep secrets than seek community.  Parents and Youth Leaders should emphasize the power of community over the isolation of secrets. Do not make promises of pseudo-confidentiality. "Never promise that you're not going to tell anyone, because what if the information is, 'I just bought a gun'?" Diamond said. 

    While students may struggle with the isolation of shame, deep down, they hunger to be known and to belong. Invite students into a circle of authenticity and encourage them to step out of darkness and into the light. "If you bring up suicide with people who are struggling with those thoughts, invariably they are relieved because someone understands, and because it's not a secret anymore,” Diamond says. 
  3. Practice Persistent Presence:  One of the most powerful statements you can make to a student is, “I am here for you.”  The ministry of presence communicates to a student that they are loved and valued by someone who knows them deeply.  This requires a certain persistence from parents and youth workers, because often, they will have to make the lion’s share of the effort to maintain this presence on a regular, ongoing basis.  Visits, phone calls, and texts are important ways to stay connected with the student. When you check in, ask open ended questions that require a conversational response from the student. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions as you grow deeper with the student. If time and weather allow, consider going for a 20-30 minute walk together as you talk things out.  The movement, changing scenery and shoulder to shoulder positioning may increase openness and engagement.
  4. Hold Out Hope: At the root of suicide is often a sense of hopelessness.  Youth Leaders and Parents must learn how to hold out hope for students without falling into clichés and platitudes.  Talk about incremental steps that lead to hope and celebrate every success as evidence of hope. For instance, it may be that a student takes the step of going for a walk each day or writing three items in a daily gratitude journal.  Celebrating those successes can give the student a sense of pride and accomplishment, increasing their belief that better days are ahead.
  5. Don’t Judge, Discern: When listening to a student share about their struggles, you may find yourself quickly “diagnosing the problem.”  Suicide is a complicated matter and there is likely many layers to the issues that the student is presently struggling with.  Avoid rushing to judgement but seek to discern what the student is saying (and not saying) in their description. As you practice reflective listening, express the causes you hear them sharing about their solutions and ask, “Is this what you are saying? What else may be contributing to your thoughts about suicide right now?
  6. Explore Alternate Solutions: Remember, suicide is not the problem, only the solution to a problem they think has no other solution. After using active listening, and hearing the story, try to engage the person as a collaborator in getting help. Ask the student to describe what problems taking their life may solve?  For instance, if a student said, “I am so tired of being ignored and excluded,” you may consider some other solutions to that problem besides suicide. If the student has had an ongoing struggle with depression or suicidal ideations, ask him/her what has helped in the past, what reasons he or she has to go on living, and what options are available. If suicide is “a solution” to a problem, identifying the problems and collaborating on potential alternate solutions can be a proactive step that empowers students toward a path of renewed health.

If you are engaged in an ongoing relationship, keep a shared journal with that student as you explore these conversations together.  You may refer back to the journal as old issues creep back up and track progress as you walk together. Guard carefully against “moving on” when a student shows progress and is no longer in “critical condition.”  Keep the relationship going and continue to engage in these six principles for the long haul.  


Other Posts in this Series:

LOVE LIFE: Critical Care for Students and Care Givers in a Suicide Culture

LOVE LIFE: Suicide in Seattle - 16 Risk Factors

LOVE LIFE: Breaking the Code of Silence

LOVE LIFE: 8 Thinking Errors Common Among Suicidal Students

LOVE LIFE: Coping by Cutting - Understanding and Engaging A Student Who Is Cutting

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