Student suicides are devastating, and they’re becoming more common. Since the 1950s, the suicide rate among young adults has tripled; it is now the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-24. In a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control, 8.9% of high school students reported a suicide attempt within the prior 12 months. Further, 18.8% reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide during the previous 12 months. And in a 2018 study, 9% of college students surveyed had made a suicide attempt, and 1 in 5 had thoughts of suicide. Suicidal thoughts and actions are not always visible, so if you’d like a comparable — and tangible — statistic to help you visualize that proportion, just think about how many people you know who have blue eyes (it’s estimated that around 8% of the population have blue eyes).
There are a wide variety of factors that can increase an individual’s risk for suicide. Some of these factors — such as the person’s racial identity, family behavioral history, and past instances of suicide attempts — are immutable. But many risk factors are variable, so they have the potential to be modified or mitigated to reduce overall risk. Some examples include the following:
Mental illness (including conditions such as anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, and others)
Withdrawal and isolation
Recent trauma and/or acute stress
Poor problem-solving and coping skills
Grief and/or loss
Recent exposure to another’s suicide
School environments may mitigate some of these factors and exacerbate others. For instance, schools provide opportunities for connection to a community, which may prevent social isolation for some students. But they’re also stressful environments; half of the high school students surveyed in this recent study reported that they experience “a great deal of stress.” In the APA’s Stress in America study, teens reported stress levels during the school year that even exceeded those of adults. And college students’ stress is on the rise too, with approximately 60% of students surveyed indicating that they felt “more than average” or “tremendous” amounts of stress in the past year.
But it can get better. Schools are in a unique position to implement suicide risk mitigation strategies and have a real, meaningful impact on their students. These strategies should include both prevention and postvention (preventive measures that are implemented after a crisis to protect those who have been impacted by that crisis). Prevention helps reduce the risk of a suicide; postvention helps reduce the risk of a suicide cluster. Some safety measures, such as educating teachers to effectively recognize and assist students who are at risk of suicide, will be an integral part of both prevention and postvention. There are a number of training programs and resource centers available to help schools create and implement suicide prevention plans.
These prevention plans must be both comprehensive and practical to be effective. It can’t just be one high school assembly or one presentation during college orientation that’s designed to raise awareness. There’s real, ongoing work that needs to be done that includes everyone: students, teachers and professors, administrators, counselors, and psychologists and psychiatrists. The information used to raise awareness must be accurate and compassionate, without relying on stereotypes or misconceptions. Short of that, the prevention strategies might not be successful. But high-quality programs have been proven to actually reduce suicidal ideation and attempts.
The consistent life ethic upholds the dignity of everyone, including students who are mentally ill or pushed to their absolute breaking point. The work of being pro-life includes supporting quality mental health interventions and care, especially when it’s assisting those who are at risk of suicide. We want our schools to be safe places for our students to gather and grow; places where they can be free from the fear of violence. In order to sustain that, we are compelled to create compassionate learning communities that implement prevention and postvention strategies to reduce suicides.
If you are feeling suicidal, please know that you matter. Your life matters. There are a great number of resources that can connect you with meaningful help. Click here for a list of resources created by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. If you know someone who’s feeling suicidal, here are some resources from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline with advice on how to offer them caring support.