Schools need to be brave enough to ask at-risk pupils: ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’

The TES reports that if schools don’t follow in the footsteps of mental health charities and talk openly, honestly and directly about suicide, vulnerable young people will slip under the radar, writes the former government mental health champion. 

Without question, the hardest thing about training to support people struggling with their mental health is unlearning almost every instinctual response you have (particularly if you’re British and are predisposed to attempt to solve every problem with a cup of tea). 

But years of working in the field has taught me you can’t treat mental health in the same way you would a flat tyre, or a tricksy boss. What might have issued from my mouth as well-meaning, practical instructions have probably reached the ears of whoever I’m talking to as judgement.

Perhaps the most counter-intuitive of all is the correct way to respond to a person who is potentially suicidal. The Samaritans, Mental Health First Aid England and specialist suicide charity ASIST all recommend asking the question direct – “are you thinking about killing yourself?”. 

It is difficult enough saying these words aloud in a training role play scenario, let alone when actually dealing with a person who’s life is in jeopardy. Yet the general consensus amongst experts is that it’s crucial to ascertain whether a person is a risk of suicidal behaviours as early as possible, and the only way to do this with any certainty is to ask outright. 

In a scenario between a teacher, parent or counsellor and a person who is exhibiting symptoms of depression, however, the question “have you thought about suicide?” is likely to have one of two responses: “Oh my God. No. Absolutely not,” in which case you have eliminated that particular risk and can move on, or “yes”, in which case you’ll be very glad you were brave enough to ask.

With schools across the country being offered free Mental Health First Aid training and the growing call for teachers to be trained in responding to emergency mental health situations, there is an obligation for government to issue crystal clear instructions on when the general rules of safeguarding might not apply. Thus, they give school staff the green light to respond to those at risk of suicide in what is generally acknowledged to be the right way. 

After all, to avoid direct questions, in certain scenarios, can be deadly. 

Read more Schools need to be brave enough to ask at-risk pupils: ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’

What do you think? Could you ask a pupil if they felt suicidal? Is it a teachers job? Will the training be adequate enough to give teachers the confidence to do so? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~Tamsin

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