Suicide is the worst of losses, especially when the victim is an adolescent. It's every parent's nightmare. And it's every principal's, too—not only for the horrific loss of the student, but for the censure that can often follow. Parents, community members, and even students may criticize the school for too much stress and pressure, too much homework and competition, and too little support. As the superintendent of schools in Palo Alto, Calif.—a district with a teen-suicide rate four times the national average—noted last fall, "any school that experiences a student suicide should brace for a tsunami of blame."
The tsunami is particularly painful because guilt always follows suicide. Everyone who knew the student wonders, "What did I miss? What could I have done?" As psychologists who have consulted in schools on more than 40 student suicides, we've seen that educators, who invest themselves deeply in their students, are especially vulnerable. They struggle with their own shock and grief, and they are deeply hurt when accused of not caring or doing enough.
To try to prevent future tragedies, schools that experience student suicide often adopt steps for student wellness in the aftermath, such as screening students for depression, training teachers and students in signs of risk for suicide, reducing homework, adding mindfulness electives, and modifying the start time of the school day. Some of these changes may improve overall student well-being, but the key causes of suicide often lie beyond the school's reach.
Of the more than 44,000 suicide deaths in the United States reported in 2015, about 1,700 were young adults ages 14 to 18, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the full range of suicidal behavior among students is even more troubling. The numbers of high school students who reported suicidal thoughts and attempts fell significantly between 1991 and 2009, but those numbers are now on the rise.
In a CDC survey given to more than 15,000 public and private high school students nationwide in 2015, nearly 18 percent of students in grades 9-12 reported they had seriously considered attempting suicide during the preceding 12 months. In the same time frame, nearly 15 percent of students said they made a plan about how they would attempt suicide, and 9 percent said they had attempted suicide one or more times. Roughly 3 percent of students had made a suicide attempt in the previous 12 months that required medical attention.
These numbers confirm that although suicide deaths are more rare among students than adults, suicidality is not. This raises the crucial question: Why would a student self-inflict death?
Suicide doesn't have just one cause. There may be a precipitating event that triggers the student's death, but vulnerability to suicide in adolescence is overwhelmingly determined by factors intrinsic to the individual or influenced by family history. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that a large majority of teens who commit suicide (up to 90 percent) have a mental illness, such as depression or bipolar disorder—serious conditions that require intensive treatment and are often hereditary.
Students can also inherit a susceptibility to substance abuse or a tendency toward impulsive aggression when frustrated, and may have a family history of suicidal behavior—each of which increases the risk of suicide. So, too, can a dysfunctional family environment marked by intense parent-child conflict or by physical or sexual abuse. Other risk factors include struggles with sexual orientation and gender identity, multiple concussions, and social problems at school, including bullying.
But school is almost never the primary cause of suicide. In fact, much so-called "school pressure" is actually pressure about school. In schools where we have worked, many principals reported that parents have crowded a forum on stress following a student suicide, yet soon returned to pressing school staff members and their own children about college admission, academic performance, and the need for a more demanding course schedule.
Furthermore, those who attempt to harm themselves do not often give clear warning signs, according to Michael C. Miller, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. While many schools create supports for students struggling with thoughts of suicide, we have seen that these very efforts can raise the expectation that schools will prevent suicide and can put the blame on educators if tragedy strikes.
Schools aren't clinics; they cannot treat mental disorders, substance abuse, or family discord. Yet, because we have assigned—or abdicated—so much responsibility for students' well-being to schools, they have become the natural scapegoat.
What, then, can schools do? Educators have to support not only students and families, but also one another. This is a delicate balancing act. A student's death must be acknowledged and doing so can help bring a school community together. It is ideal for administrators to gather faculty and parents and give them a few simple pointers for talking with students, along with a list of relevant articles and clinical-referral sources.
When students are identified as being at risk, educators must urge parents to seek treatment and may also have to help parents find a doctor or therapist who can provide such help. If parents resist, educators must emphasize the gravity of the concern in blunt terms; press parents about why they would deny the student help; and if need be, raise the prospect of involving child-welfare agencies.
As we have seen over and over in our work, and as scores of principals and guidance counselors have told us, students—even if they're quite upset—typically recover faster from the tragedy of a peer's suicide than adults do. And if a suicide occurs, schools can contribute to healing the student body by pausing to address the loss, sharpening their watch over the students of greatest concern, and encouraging the return to school routines, which offer a comforting continuity.
Above all, when it comes to addressing the wrenching matter of student suicide, schools, families, and communities need to expect from administrators and teachers what they expect from their students: not perfection, just their very best.
This essay appeared in Education Week, February 14, 2017. Dr. Evans is the Executive Director and Dr. Kline the Clinical Director at HRS.