How to Prevent Suicide in Teens: K-12 Strategies

As one of the leading causes of death in the United States, suicidal behavior is a major threat to public health — especially among American youth.

According to the Jason Foundation — an organization that advocates for youth suicide prevention — over 3,700 U.S. high school students attempt suicide daily. For context, that’s 1,350,500 students annually. Altogether, more teens and young adults die by suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined.

Unfortunately, that’s not even counting elementary or middle school kids. If you factored them into the mix, the total would surely be higher — a sobering thought for school districts of all shapes and sizes.

Preventing suicide is easier said than done, but you can make a difference with the right approach. In this guide, we’ll help you understand the prevalence of youth suicide and what your district can do to protect students from this dangerous mental health issue.

Unpacking adolescent suicide

John Hopkins Medicine defines youth suicide as when a child or teen intentionally causes their own death. Before making a suicide attempt, they may have thought about wanting to die. That’s called suicidal ideation.

Although they’re obviously linked, it’s best not to confuse the two for one another. In simple terms, suicidal ideation is the thought process behind a potential suicide attempt (emphasis on “potential,” because someone may not follow through with their intentions). Due to this distinction, there are two types of ideation:

  • Passive suicidal ideation: A young person may have suicidal thoughts or exhibit suicidal behavior, they don’t actually plan taking their own life.
  • Active suicidal ideation: This refers to when the adolescent is actively planning their suicide attempt. They may choose a method, write a note, or set a date for following through.

In either case, early intervention is crucial to preventing suicide. Someone who is passively suicidal may not be an immediate suicide risk, but their condition can deteriorate into active planning. Likewise, they’re also more likely to engage in reckless behavior that endangers themselves or others.

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Who is at risk of teen suicide?

It’s important to note that suicide risk varies between demographics. A young person of one background may be more susceptible to suicidal thoughts than someone from another. Here’s a non-exhaustive look at some of the most recent numbers:

  • John Hopkins reports that males are overall four times more likely to die by suicide than females. However, females are twice as likely to have attempted suicide.
  • The suicide rate is twice as high in Black teens compared to their white peers, according to the American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry. Moreover, the suicide rate for Black male teens increased 60% over the past two decades.
  • A survey of high school students found that Asian American teens have the highest rate of suicidal ideation with almost a quarter having thought about or planned to take their own life.
  • According to the Trevor Project, almost half of LGBTQ youth considered suicide in the past year, whereas 14% actually made an attempt.

The bottom line: When creating suicide prevention policies or accessing human services, school districts should keep in mind all types of people. This ensures everyone receives the help they need regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Is adolescent suicide on the rise?

An overwhelming majority of Americans believe the country has a significant mental health issue on its hands. In fact, a 2022 CNN poll found that 90% of people consider mental health to be in crisis. The problem has become so severe that President Biden announced a $200 million action plan to tackle it head on in May 2023.

But is it true? Are K-12 students really in crisis? If you look at the data, it’s hard to believe otherwise.

In 2021, emergency departments across the U.S. noted a sharp rise in 12-to-17-year-olds needing treatment for suicidal thoughts or actions. And in a recent federal survey, more than 40% of high school students reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless,” while 1 in 5 said they’d thought about suicide.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate among minors aged 10-17 has leaped more than over 70% over the past 10 years. More recently, emergency room visits for intentional self-harm have nearly doubled.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for high school students aged 14-18. Moreover, according to the National Institute of Health, it’s the third leading cause of death for Americans aged 15-24. So, not only is suicide a threat to adolescent health, but it’s also a major risk for young adults.

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Why is teen suicide on the rise?

There’s no single risk factor to blame for K-12’s lingering mental health issue. However, it’s fair to say several worldly events have significantly worsened the problem — most notably, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, COVID-19 has had a measurable impact on teen suicide statistics. As a matter of fact, suicidal ideation rates and and attempts among teens were nearly twice as high during the first half of 2020 as compared to 2019. During the pandemic, many youth experienced grief, isolation, and fear. According to the CDC, more than a quarter (29%) reported a parent or other adult in their home lost a job.

COVID-19 was especially traumatic for certain demographics, which it seems to have impacted disproportionately. As reported by the Trevor Project, 56% of LGBTQ youth said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to the pandemic.

However, even before the lockdown, youth suicide rates were the highest in recorded history. An April 2020 report from the CDC indicates that suicide rates have increased 35% since the start of the century.

So, what’s the cause? Experts say it’s never just one reason, but a multitude of forces contributing to the crisis. These can be categorized into four types of risk factors: individual, social, community-based, and environmental. Let’s discuss each one in more detail.

Individual risk factors

This type of risk factor is personal to the individual. It may originate from their own behavior or from their personal history. This may include:

  • Previous suicide attempt: The most powerful predictor of future behavioral health is whether a young person has attempted suicide in the past. Sometimes, even the stigma and shame someone feels from their past attempt may lead them to try again.
  • History of mental illness: Youths that experience a mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety, are a greater suicide risk. In fact, the risk of suicide for someone with major depression is 20 times that of the general population.
  • Substance abuse: Individuals with drug and alcohol addictions are particularly susceptible to suicidal behavior. In fact, suicide is a leading cause of death among people who have a substance abuse problem.

Social risk factors

A social risk factor originates externally and may be outside an individual’s control. It can include:

  • Bullying: Whether it be verbal, physical, or digital harassment, bullying of any kind can be detrimental to a young person’s development. According to the CDC, bullying can lower an adolescent’s self-esteem, which may put them at greater risk for suicidal ideation. Likewise, there’s also evidence that suggests bullies themselves are more prone to suicidal behavior.
  • Loss of a loved one: The death of a close relative or friend can be difficult to handle, especially if it’s due to suicide. The Child Mind Institute says a family history of suicide can also make children more susceptible to attempting it themselves.
  • Social isolation: Kids may have difficulty making friends. This can have a detrimental effect on their self-worth and may lead them to hurt themselves. Researchers have found that there’s a direct correlation between social isolation and suicidal behavior.

Community risk factors

Like social factors, community-based elements originate externally. However, they may include societal forces and past events that worsen pre-existing mental illness. For example:

  • Lack of community support: This is especially daunting for LGBTQ youth. In fact, members of this demographic who live in a community that is accepting of LGBTQ people reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide than those who do not. The same goes for teens who report having a supportive school climate.
  • Inability to access healthcare: Barriers in accessing much-needed services — transportation, finances, language etc. — make it difficult for youth to get the help they need.

Environmental factors

A young person’s immediate environment is a powerful force. It shapes much of their emotional well-being and can include the follow factors:

  • Stigma: Unfortunately, mental health awareness is still in its infancy. Many communities are slow to understand mental illness and may react negatively to teens that reach out for support.
  • Access to lethal means: Some experts believe the prevalence of suicide in rural communities is related to the ease for young people to get hold of firearms.

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What can schools do to prevent suicide?

By now, you’re surely wondering how to prevent teen suicide — both in and outside your district. Luckily, there are several basic strategies you can implement to improve your suicide prevention efforts:

  1. Strengthen community partnerships: Sometimes it’s best to leave mental health care to the professionals. If you don’t have school psychologists on staff, contacting community programs can help fill in the gap. There are many youth suicide prevention organizations, such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness, that have local chapters across the country.
  2. Develop suicide prevention policies: This includes protocols for responding to youth suicide, as this can hurt the school community. Establish policies and procedures for suicide risk screening, crisis response, and staff training. These steps will help you set the framework for a comprehensive suicide prevention program.
  3. Identify at-risk youth: Familiarize your team with the warning signs of mental illness, self-harm, or suicidal ideation. This empowers your staff to intervene early and stop a bad situation from devolving into something much worse.
  4. Teach Social Emotional Learning (SEL): SEL is a program that teaches students self-awareness, problem-solving skills, and conflict resolution. It’s known to impact school climate positively and may help kids cope with negative emotions.

The role of IT in suicide prevention

You may not realize it, but your school district’s IT department plays a pivotal role in youth suicide prevention.

Simply put, kids are online more than ever before. They’re accessing the internet using school-provided cloud applications and leaving behind a breadcrumb trail of safety signals in the process. Whether in a Google Slides presentation or a Microsoft Word document, cloud data may have telling insights into a student’s mental health. They may be discussing suicide, self-harm, or other details about their personal lives that could put them at risk.

However, these early warning signs are almost undetectable without the requisite tools. That’s where a cloud monitoring solution like Cloud Monitor by ManagedMethods can help.

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