Sadly, suicide loss in schools across the United States is a grim, recurring reality. An array of unique challenges follow in the wake of the death of a young person by suicide, including those that confront those involved with our schools. With this in mind, there is vital information that needs to be understood when it comes to responding to suicide loss in a school setting. As part of responding to suicide loss in a school setting, there must be an understanding of the facts and factors associated with a young person developing suicidal ideations and actually taking affirmative steps towards taking his or her life.

Larry Berkowitz is the Director of the Riverside Recovery Center. He is regarded as a knowledgeable specialist in the realm of strategies designed to effectively respond to suicide loss, including the development of definitive strategies to support schools in the aftermath of a student dying by suicide.

Suicide Risk Categories

Berkowitz of the Riverside Recovery Center underscores that there is never one cause for suicide, this includes suicides among students. Relevant professional literature suggests that there are upward to 60 different suicide risks. These risks can be categorized into 10 broader categories, according to Berkowitz:

  • Family history
  • Previous attempts
  • Medical factors
  • Demographic factors
  • Cognitive style
  • Access to means
  • Psychological factors
  • Clinical factors
  • Substance abuse or addiction
  • Exposure to suicide

Overview of the Mechanics of How a Suicide Occurs

A commonplace misunderstanding is that one reason exists for a young person to take his or her life. A prime example of the idea that there is one underlying cause is that bullying causes suicide. While bullying can push a young person towards taking his or her life, other risk factors as outlined a moment ago also need to be present. An overview of the mechanics of how suicide occurs aids in better understanding these dynamics.

When it comes to understanding the mechanics of suicide and how it occurs, there are three component considerations:

  • Underlying vulnerability
  • Stress event
  • Acute mood change

Examples of underlying vulnerability include:

  • Mood disorder
  • Substance abuse
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Family history
  • Sexual orientation
  • Abnormal serotonin metabolism

While not trying to sound overly simplistic, these underlying vulnerabilities render a young person more prone to suicidal ideation and actually taking affirmative steps to end his or her own life. These underlying vulnerabilities are coupled with a particular stress event, moving a young person closer to suicidal ideation and taking steps to end his or her life. Examples of a stress event include, but are not limited to:

  • Trouble in school
  • Trouble at home
  • Trouble with the law
  • Personal loss

Bullying was mentioned a moment ago. When it comes to stress events, trouble at school is a prime example. Moreover, bullying in a school setting is a commonplace example of a school-based stress event that plays a role in the development of suicidal ideations and the decision of a young person to take his or her life.

There is an important fact to point out when it comes to a particular event that plays a role in the death by suicide of a student. In many cases, a particular event (like a bullying incident, for example) may occur on the day a young person takes his or her own life. As a result of the state of the development of a young person’s brain, a student is more apt to move more quickly towards taking his or her life in the direct aftermath of a “triggering event” than is the case for an older person.

Underlying vulnerabilities coupled with a particular stress event can result in mood change. In many cases, the mood change is noticeable if those around an afflicted young person is paying attention. Examples of acute mood change include:

  • Anxiety
  • Dread
  • Hopelessness
  • Anger

Depending on how a young person responds to an underlying vulnerability, a stress event, and an acute mood change depends on whether or not he or she experiences suicidal ideation. The two potential responses are:

  • Inhibition
  • Facilitation

Inhibition in this discussion of student suicides is precisely the common usage of the term. Simply, inhibition in regard to the matter of death by suicide of young people is restraint upon acting. In regard to suicide and young people, inhibition comes in a number of different ways:

  • Taboo against suicide
  • Available support
  • Slowed down mental state
  • Presence of others

Touching on each of these primary inhibitions against suicide is necessary. A common example of a taboo against suicide is a religious belief. Religions tend to expound upon the sanctity of life – including our own. Thus, a young person of faith is apt to give pause to planning to take his or her life because of religious considerations.

Available support is crucial to understand and fully appreciate. A young person is far, far less likely to take his or her life if he or she has readily available support. Readily available is the key. We must keep in mind that in some instances a young person lacks this support at home – or feels that he or she lacks that type of support (even when it is in fact present). The need for readily available support underscores the burden on schools to strive to ensure that supportive assistance and services readily are available to students, including young people in a time of crisis.

A slowed-down mental state also can serve to inhibit a young person from taking his or her life. If a young person is agitated and not thinking deliberately, that individual is more likely to die by suicide in what some might call a “rash moment.”

Finally, the mere presence of others can be a significant inhibition to a young person taking his or her life. Unfortunately, a considerable percentage of young people may not have the presence of others in his or her life on a consistently reliable basis. There may be issues at home and with the family. A young person may be lacking in peer support from other students. This represents another factor that places the focus on school staff to attempt to appropriately fill in voids when it comes to human connections and students.

Facilitation represents a set of factors that “set the stage” for a young person to be able to act on his or her suicidal ideations. Facilitation comes in a number of different forms:

  • Weak taboo
  • Method to commit suicide available (like a weapon)
  • Recent example
  • Agitation
  • Being alone

As can be seen at first blush, the set of factors associated with facilitation are something of counterpoint to inhibitions discussed a moment ago. For example, if a young person lacks a sense of taboo associated with death by suicide, he or she is more likely to attempt to take his or her life.

The availability of a means to commit suicide is also a key point when it comes to facilitation. For example, if a young person has ready access to a weapon like a firearm, odds increase that he or she will take affirmative steps towards ending his or her life.

A sad reality associated with suicide among young people is the fact that self-inflicted deaths sometimes occur in what oftentimes are referred to as “clusters.” When it comes to the facilitation of suicide among young people, a recent example of someone else dying in this manner can be something of a motivator for some teens and even younger individuals.

Agitation is yet another facilitating factor when it comes to suicide among young people. As mentioned previously, a negative event like a bullying incident (coupled with the other factors that underpin suicidal ideation as discussed a moment ago) can spur a young person to take his or her life. As was also mentioned previously, the brains of young people are in a state of development and don’t have the same level of impulse control generally found in adults. As a consequence, a student is more likely act on a suicidal ideation in a state of agitation than might an adult.

Finally, being alone is an important facilitating factor when it comes to the death by suicide of a young person. This includes not only students who really are alone but also those that feel as if they have no one in their lives.

The concept of being alone extends beyond a more ubiquitous feeling of not having anyone in his or her life. It also means a young person literally being by his or her self at the time of suicidal ideations. In other words, a young person may have caring people in his or her life. However, when experiencing suicidal ideations, that young person simply has no one around at that moment.

In summary, we’ve presented some key information about facts and factors that play a role in the development of suicidal ideation by a young person. We discussed how certain elements can come together to lay a grim foundation upon which a young person attempts to take or succeeds in taking his or her own life.

Armed with his information, adults in a school setting are better able to provide useful interventions with students who may be harboring suicidal thoughts or even suicidal ideations. In the final analysis, understanding these facts and factors is useful in comprehending suicide loss more generally. Moreover, with this information, the hope is teachers, administrators, counselors, and others in a school setting are placed in a better position to affirmatively support students who may be facing thoughts of suicide or more profound suicidal ideations.