ANDERSON – As a teacher at Shenandoah School Corp., Elizabeth Reed experienced firsthand how the suicide of a classmate can rock a student body.
“There was kind of a somber feeling, but there was uplifting support as well,” she said.
Reed, who is teaching the fifth grade this year at Anderson Intermediate School, was one of about 30 Anderson Community Schools educators and staff learning what they should look for and the resources available for suicide prevention.
The in-person training, similar to CPR training, is mandatory every three years for all Indiana educators teaching grades five through 12 under a law passed in 2017. ACS tries to offer the class twice a year.
Educators in several local school districts, including ACS, Shenandoah and South Madison, have been challenged to find ways to help students cope with the suicides or attempted suicides of their schoolmates.
“It’s becoming more and more prominent. You need to be aware, especially with older kids,” Reed said.
But she noted that she was most surprised at the tender age at which some children consider and are able to take their own lives.
“It breaks my heart to know that,” she said.
Nancy Smith, a trainer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, has advice on how much teachers should say when they hand off a student who has threatened self harm to an administrator or medical or mental health professional.
“You want to tell them absolutely all the information you got,” she said. “That’s just another way to tell the person you were listening, you care.”
As the parent of a 16-year-old who tried twice to commit suicide in 2017, Smith immersed herself in learning about the warning signs for those who would cause themselves harm.
“There might not be bright lights – yelling and screaming – to let you know they are considering suicide,” the crisis intervention specialist said.
Smith said the training by the teachers can be an important first line of defense in turning around the life of a student facing mental health issues or the pressures of young life.
“They spend the most time with our children every day. They see the changes. They’re the first ones who will notice the changes in their demeanor, their behavior,” she said.
In addition to educators, Smith said she thinks maybe young people in middle and high school also should go through suicide prevention training.
“Their friends are usually the first ones who will pick up on the change,” she said.
Julie Russell, social worker at Anderson Intermediate, said suicide among youth always has been a problem, but it is becoming more recognized.
“It’s a positive thing that we’re recognizing it’s a necessary thing. It’s coming out of the shadows. We just need to talk about it,” she said.
However, Russell said, while some people still flinch at the use of the word “suicide,” doing so helps remove the stigma that prevents people from talking about the issue.
“You need to be direct with the kids in that way. You need to ask the question, ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’”
The most important thing shared with the teachers, Russell said, is knowing when to ask for help.
“We’re trying to teach the teachers it’s not their job to assess; it’s their job to refer,” she said.
What to look for
Here are some of the warning signs that all might not be well with a child and that he or she could be considering committing suicide.
• Changes in behavior and demeanor.
• Social withdrawal of a formerly gregarious child.
• Giving away of prized possessions.
• Use of drugs and alcohol.