10 Ways to Respond to a Suicidal Student
by Jen Bradbury
“I’m thinking about killing myself.” It’s a phrase no youth worker ever wants to hear. But stay in ministry long enough and you will. I remember the first time I heard it. I felt panicked and in many ways, frozen. I was unsure what to do and yet I felt the weight of every word I said. I knew my actions could determine whether this student lived or died.
Because I was caught so completely off-guard in that moment, once the immediate crisis passed, I began learning all I could about how to respond to suicidal students. I quickly realized that the more prepared you are for this situation, the more you’ll be able to actually help a suicidal student in the moment. With that in mind, here are 10 strategies for dealing with suicidal kids.
Never promise a student who wants to talk that you’ll keep what’s said confidential.
Often, a suicidal student begins by saying something along the lines of, “I have something I want to tell you but you have to promise you won’t tell anyone else.” That kind of statement should always be a red flag for you. You simply CANNOT promise a student that you won’t tell anyone else what they’re about to tell you. In some places and denominations, youth workers are actually mandatory reporters, which means you’re required by law to report a student who’s being harmed, harming someone else, or in danger of harming themselves. Even if this is not the case for you, no matter how much training you’ve had, you cannot handle a suicidal kid by yourself. You MUST involve other people. So, rather than promising a student that you’ll keep something confidential, promise them that you’ll listen to them and walk with them through whatever they’re about to tell you.
Be wary of “friends”.
Sometimes a student will come to you wanting to talk about a “friend” they’re concerned about. Occasionally, a student really is concerned about their friend. But often, they’re talking about themselves.
Always take a suicidal statement seriously.
It can be tempting to brush off a suicidal statement – in part because we don’t want to believe that one of our kids might actually be thinking about killing themselves. Yet, if a student tells you they’re thinking about killing themselves, you must take that statement seriously. Believe them. You won’t do any harm by taking such a statement seriously. Ignoring it, however, could literally result in death.
Find out as much information as you can without making a student feel as though they’re being grilled. One great way of doing this is to simply say, “Tell me more.” As you listen to your student, if possible, guide the conversation towards the following:
- How often do they feel suicidal? Is the urge to kill themselves constant or does it come and go?
- What else is going on in the student’s life? How’s life at home? At school? With their friends? With their sweetheart? Have they recently been in serious trouble? Are they being bullied by someone? Suicidal thoughts aren’t always prompted by something going wrong, but they can be. Sometimes, addressing suicidal thoughts requires us to address an underlying problem or circumstance.
- Whether or not they have a plan. The more details a student has for what they’ll do, the more they’ve thought about it and the more serious they are.
- Who else knows? Has this student confided in their parents? Friends? A school counselor? Knowing the answer to this question helps you discern who you need to involve.
Don’t worry about putting ideas into a student’s head.
Sometimes, youth workers worry they’ll make a situation worse by talking openly about what’s going on. They fear that the more detailed questions they ask a student, the more they’re helping a student formulate their plan. That’s NOT the case. Students who want to commit suicide have the means to find out how to do it simply by googling it. You are NOT putting fresh ideas in someone’s mind. You’re simply giving them the chance to openly acknowledge what they’ve already been thinking about. It’s only when someone acknowledges what they’re thinking about that we actually have a chance of helping them.
Think of the process of reporting a suicidal student as one of addition, not subtraction.
When a student tells you they’re suicidal, you MUST report it using whatever process your church has (if it doesn’t have one, then start by establishing one.) If a student is in imminent danger, call 911. If a student is not in imminent danger, then your first call should be their parents. When you call someone’s parents (or visit them in person), you’ll need to be ready to refer them to someone who can help them (a trained counselor, a school counselor, a medical facility with in-patient treatment, etc.) For this reason, it’s helpful to cultivate those support networks before you need them. I refer suicidal students to a local college friend who’s a licensed therapist who specializes in adolescent work. Had I not already had a relationship established with her, I would have asked colleagues and others in our church for references and then scheduled a time to meet with those whose names consistently popped up in order to get to know them. The more you know who you’re referring students to, the more confident you can be in their treatment. At some point, you’ll also need to tell your senior pastor what’s going on. As you bring others into the team of people who will care for your student and their family, remember that you’re not removing yourself from the equation. Instead, you’re involving others so as to ensure that your student gets the care she needs.
Even if you deem a student’s situation doesn’t present imminent danger to themselves or others, you need to act quickly. Don’t try to be a suicidal student’s savior; they’ve already got one. Instead, immediately bring others (especially their parents) onto their care team.
Give suicidal students power back.
Suicidal students often feel powerless, as though their lives are spinning out of control. For this reason, involve them in making decisions about who to contact. For example, if I learn a student’s parents aren’t aware of the situation, I’ll tell the student something along the lines of, “I am so grateful you told me about this today. Thanks for trusting me with this information. Because I love you and care about you, we need to involve some more people in what happens next. The first people we need to involve are your parents. We can do this in one of two ways: I can call your parents right now and share what you’ve just told me with them OR we can go to your house and you can tell your parents while we’re together.” I then let students choose what they’d like to do and honor that choice. In the case of a suicidal student, what I won’t do is give them the option to tell their parents without me and have their parents call me. That’s just too risky. Parents need to know what’s going on immediately.
Don’t leave a suicidal kid alone.
Suicidal students can be volatile. If you need to call 911 or their parents, do it with them in the room. If a student opts for you to tell their parents together, drive them home in your car. Give parents the same guidelines as you walk them through what to do next (Typically, calling 911, communicating with a school counselor, seeking in-patient treatment at a local hospital, or getting an immediate appointment with a licensed therapist).
Continue to care for the suicidal student and their family, regardless of what other kind of care they receive.
Just because you’ve let parents know what’s going on and worked with a family to get them the help they need doesn’t mean you’re suddenly out of the equation (remember, it’s about addition, not subtraction). Instead, continue walking with this family for the long haul. Give suicidal students permission to call you 24-7 if they’re tempted to do anything to harm themselves (and make sure you pick up the phone if they call you!) Follow-up with students to see how they’re doing. Let them know that while not every conversation they have with you needs to be about being suicidal, you’re also not afraid to ask the hard questions. Let them know that you love them and that they are not a bad person.
Knowing what to do when a suicidal student approaches you won’t stop you from dreading these conversations or wishing they never occurred. It will, however, enable you to be fully present and to care for your student (and their family) well, in a way that might just save a life.
Jen Bradbury serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus(The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus(The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.