The suicide conversation in schools and in society

Following the Meghan and Harry interview with Oprah Winfrey, one issue that gained much media attention was the importance of mental health and especially, how feelings of isolation and loneliness can lead to suicidal ideation.

The prevalence of such thoughts amongst young people has increased in recent years, with new kinds of pressures arising from having to cope with life in the 21st Century and particularly throughout the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For parents, dealing with the pain in the tragedy of losing a child is unimaginable. When it’s a suspected suicide, it becomes excruciating for parents and family trying to cope with the suddenness and to further try and comprehend the reasons why. 

Open any school prospectus and amongst the Aims and Vision one will see two recurrent themes. ‘Developing your potential’ and ‘Educating the whole person.’ Both are deserving of the school’s commitment in helping a young person see what he or she can indeed become. It is no wonder then that we suffer immense sadness and trauma following a suicide death.

Figures from the Samaritan’s Statistics Report 2015 show that alarmingly, suicide is now the principal cause of death in men aged 15-30. This surpasses the total number of deaths from road accidents in the same year. For many schools and universities, the issue has brought much soul-searching, reflection and thought to staff, students and their communities. It is an alarming statistic that at least 200 children take their own lives each year in the UK. While reasons are many and very personal, there is nearly always a sense of isolation or detachment where relationships have not grown or fail to exist in a meaningful way. 

While there is a recent and laudable effort to increase awareness of mental health in our schools, it is set within the harsh and tragic reality that life circumstances can be too much to bear for anyone at any given time. In moments like these, a weak human being may believe and feel that there is no way of coping. What leads one to this ‘dark place’ is never evident as the clock ticks forward but in hindsight we might have ‘noticed’ signs that were not so obvious at an earlier time.

A dying by suicide involves a disconnecting from life. It is about a withdrawal by the mind and then the body. But what are the aspects of life that impact on a decision to die by suicide? What is shaping this vacuum of detachment in a young person and what is needed to address this impoverishment of belonging?

Given that most young suicides occur within the 15-25 age group, how does the educational sector at Second and Third level see its ‘duty of care’ towards students?

How do we incorporate addressing the issue of suicide and those aspects of life affecting a possible suicide decision?

We owe it to education itself that students in their learning are empowered to live a holistic and long life, developing their potential as most ‘school vision’s’ clearly state.

World-wide figures show well over a million suicides per year with six times that number attempting. Occasionally it may appear that suicide deaths are common but this is usually where a number of deaths occur with one age range, a comparatively short time period or a specific geographical area.

Unfortunately, many parents are not always engaged with their child’s on-line life let alone aware of what’s happening in his or her life within the school walls. Some parents have a tendency to leave the ‘schooling’ up to the teachers especially after primary years and so their active involvement in post-primary education is not as strong. They may think that as teenagers, their children are old enough to look after themselves and so their awareness of how they are coping is not as well attuned as it was during the primary school years.

With that newfound freedom, teenagers are likely to explore their new world, taking more risks and learning through discovery - often the hard way. Navigating one’s way through the maze of choices and the many voices that fill young heads is not easy and not everyone has a trustworthy friend or family member to talk to.

With the rise in the use of social media, young people are also being warned as well of the dangers of chat-rooms and forums where exploitive and hurtful words are written. Strangers as well as so-called friends have easy access to say what they wish without scrutiny. This can be a cause of great distress to many who are unable to interpret or assess what in fact is taking place and the experience can be the origin of negative emotions, fear and worry in coming to terms with what is going on in this on-line world.

While all of these issues are part of the holistic approach to education, teachers may have difficulty or feel uncomfortable in speaking about death.

The whole issue of suicide requires a language, a sensitivity and an expertise that some may feel is more suited to a specialist. There are many excellent resources for young people and educationists to refer to but what we can all do in the present is heighten our awareness that the child before us in the classroom desk might be carrying a burden that we cannot or never will see.

The issue is not just for schools and universities, but it is a societal one. Aiming to prevent suicide is the business of everyone and at school, we can direct parents and mentors to good resources that will keep this conversation alive.

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