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Suicide First Aid: supporting young people with their mental health

“One man in his time plays many parts,

His act being seven ages. At first the infant, 

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;

And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school.”

So says the sardonic Jacques in Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It (act 2, scene 7 to be precise[1]). He likens a person’s life to a theatrical production, dividing it into ‘acts’ and describing each stage in terms of its struggles and experiences. It grasps our attention right from the start, not just because of the beautifully crafted prose, but also the notion that even babies and young children cannot escape life’s struggles.

When babies cry, they are attended to straightaway and whatever is upsetting them, e.g. hunger, pain or a need for sleep, is sorted out. They are too young to do this for themselves, so they need an older person’s help. When children reach an age old enough to go to school, however, they must start to take on more responsibility for themselves. They are growing up and taking their place in the world, where they are expected to do certain things, even if they must ‘creep unwillingly’ to do some of them.

This stage of growing up is, of course, unavoidable and very important if our children are to thrive in the adult world one day. It is not an easy stage to navigate without the right kind of support. Children can feel anxious, worried, angry upset, ignored and overwhelmed every bit as much as people who are older than they are. Issues around academic pressure, friendship difficulties, bullying, social media and first forays into romantic relationships can all cause huge problems if a child does not feel adequately supported.

Mental health concerns can manifest in a variety of ways in young people. These can include highly visible signs such as self-harming, panic attacks and erratic behaviour, as well as other changes such as anger and aggression, lack of focus, increased tiredness and uncharacteristically withdrawing from company.[2] UK charity, Young Minds works to support children and young people experiencing difficulties with their mental health. This support comes in the form of advice, information, training resources and campaigning for improvements in how mental health is supported in school and other settings. Crucially, Young Minds also offers guidance on how to talk to a young person struggling with their feelings and mental wellbeing.[3] Starting a conversation about difficult topics like this can feel daunting, especially when someone starts to mention the prospect of suicide and thoughts about taking their own life.

A little more conversation…

The key to supporting young people and their family and friends in this way is to try to understand what they are going through. This doesn’t necessarily mean finding them someone who has had the exact same life experiences as them to talk to. All that is required is a decent level of empathy and patience enough to give the person the courage, space and time to seek support. Often those around a young person who has revealed that they are having thoughts about suicide can feel helpless, shocked or guilty that they haven’t been able to help them allay such difficult feelings.[4]

This is perfectly natural. Many parents report becoming anxious, emotionally exhausted and overprotective as they try to come to terms with the situation they and their child are in. No-one likes to see a young person suffering, least of all someone who loves them dearly. However, strong feelings like these need to be processed and understood before the situation can move on towards offering practical or therapeutic help. Communication – and lots of it – is the key here.

Communicating and talking about mental health concerns and suicide can be done in informal and formal settings – a combination of both approaches could be helpful to ‘come at’ the issue from all sides. Being able to choose whether to talk to friends or family over a meal, for example, or engage with something more structured could help more young people to reach out for help.

Both methods have their merits. A European study run by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden discovered that a structured programme in schools that was aimed at addressing mental health issues helped reduce suicide attempts and ideation in adolescents.[5] The programme brought the topic out into the open and took away much of the fear and stigma attached to talking about it.

The best way to start a more informal conversation with a young person is to do so gently and non-judgementally. Be led by them. Emphasise that you are there to listen to them. If they start to feel uncomfortable, stop and try again another time. Or suggest someone else they could talk to if they don’t want to speak to you. You could try to initiate a conversation while doing something else, such as over a meal, in the car or during a session of a hobby they enjoy. Or suggest discussing their thoughts via text message or email rather than face to face. Taking a less direct approach like this could help take much of the pressure off.

Stay open minded. You could suspect that your young loved one is worried about exams or academic grades, when in reality, they are upset about something that happened with a friend, girlfriend or boyfriend. Again, don’t judge. What could seem inconsequential to you could be something that has become a huge problem in their mind. If they are open to the idea, try talking about coping strategies that they could use to help put their feelings into perspective. Emphasise the importance of self-care and keeping their expectations of themselves realistic. Reassure them that it is always OK to ask for help. Whatever ‘stage of life’ they are at.

Support for educational staff

Samaritans, another mental health related charity, also offers specific help and advice to teachers, SENCOs and other educational staff around supporting young people who could be at risk of self-harm, attempts to take their life and other mental health concerns. The charity points out that exposure to an attempt by someone to take their own life can lead to an increase in thoughts about suicide. One study quoted suggests that the impact of a schoolmate taking their own life on a young person aged between 12 and 17 years old could even be greater than the suicide of a family member.[6]

These startling facts makes the role of educational staff extremely important in helping to prevent instances of suicide among young people. Knowing how and when to talk to students thinking about suicide of self-harm is not easy, however, and is something around which educational staff should ask for and expect solid back-up and support.

Suicide First Aid is a course created, licensed, and owned by the National Centre for Suicide Prevention, Education and Training (NCSPET) devised to help people prepare for these exact scenarios. It covers several aspects, from understanding suicide risks and trigger factors through to learning what to say, what not to say and when to seek emergency medical or specialist support[7].

For more information about the course and to sign up for your place, please get in touch today. Knowing how to respond to a young person who has expressed thoughts about suicide, self-harm or depression can make a huge difference at an earlier stage.

[1] Source: As You Like It, by William Shakespeare, Act 2, Sc. 7

[2] Source: Accessed 15 October 2021

[3] Source: Accessed 15 October 2021

[4] Source: When it is Darkest, by Rory O’Connor,2021, p242

[5] Source: When it is Darkest, by Rory O’Connor,2021, p247

[6] Source: Accessed 15 October 2021

[7] Source: Accessed 22 September 2021

Post Author: Gayle Young