The Suicide Series: When Difficult Conversations Matter

As a teacher educator,  there are certainly a few topics that cause me to hold back.  My chest tightens when I hear one of my teacher candidates share about a recent suicide at their school site.

As a classroom teacher I never experienced having to navigate in a school setting where a student I use to know has taken their life  and I might have to grapple with questions like, "What could I have done?" "Was this preventable?" and "Were there any signs?"

In Silicon Valley where many of my teacher candidates are working teen suicide has made national headlines.  The pressure to perform and the expectation to succeed is a likely factor that contributes to stress and anxiety in a teen's life.  Luthar's (2006) research found affluent kids are at risk especially when achievement-related goals such as "attend a good college" and "make a lot of money" are higher ranked than personal values such as "being kind to others" and "happy with yourself and life".

As a teenage I will never forget the day when I found out a friend decided to take his life.  It happened unexpectedly and without warning. So the topic of suicide can possibly trigger some old memories I never had the chance to deal with.  I imagine that many of the teachers I work with also know someone who took their life; teenage suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens.

Personally, the thought of suicide never occurred to me,  until I lost someone I knew.  Then came feelings of deep sadness that I could not explain or even process.  I also began to wonder what it would be like, to bring my life to an end, would that make all my troubles go away?  I experienced bullying, shaming, and pressure to perform and get into a "good" college as a teen.  My parents were also going through a divorce during high school and I felt suffocated going to a catholic school where so many pressures I faced as a teen were ignored.

A recent Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, chronicles the life of a teenage girl whose decision to take her life at the onset of the movie,  is revealed through a series of audio tapes she sends to students who impacted her decision.  As this film and book brings much needed attention to the topic of suicide,  the power and romanticism of the act can be potentially dangerous to teenagers at risk and lacking sense of agency in their life.  As noted in Luthar's research teens who are already depressed and feeling little self-worth might see suicide as powerful choice.  The potential danger of a romanticized version of suicide is echoed by teen writer Jaclyn Grimm in a USA Today Op-ed piece.

Teachers should consider how media such as this show may trigger students who are already thinking about suicide.  Having conversations with your students and colleagues at your school site, including guidance counselors and administrators can begin formulating ways you can build a safe and inclusive school where students thrive and feel safe, protected and cared for.  

A few tips for teachers who may be working with students at risk: 

  1.  Don't assume that other people know and will handle it.  Assume that you are the only one and be pro-active. 
  2. Don't ignore indirect references to suicide, such as "I wish my life was over" or "You''ll be sad when I am gone".
  3. Students who share ideas of feeling hopeless, withdrawn and express self-hatred may be at risk of suicide. 
  4. Immediately contact your school psychologist, guidance counselor and social worker to determine a plan for action treat this as an emergency
  5. When difficult conversations occur don't judge, or diminish students' feelings validate their feelings and determine if they are at risk of suicide.

Here are a few addition resources for information on suicide prevention and support:

The Suicide Series: When Difficult Conversations Matter The Suicide Series: When Difficult Conversations Matter Reviewed by Dr. Dickenson on 12:11 PM Rating: 5


  1. Thank you for posting this blog. Last week a student in my district committed suicide in the quad area of his middle school campus. I am troubled that I found out about it on Facebook and not through our district office. There is a student advocacy group called Strength over Silence that is tackling the important issue of depression and mental health in south orange county. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It is heartbreaking and preventable.

    1. In today's busy world we need to take the time to be present as teachers to what is going on in our school community. I know it is easier said than done but so so sad that a student would take their life in a prominent area of the school so they could be recognized and heard. Of course their are other factors going on that are often outside of the teacher's control, but kids need to know we care. I also believe that districts need to make more time for teachers to enjoy teaching and not be so test driven and academic focus that teachers can not develop the bonds with students that need to happen.

  2. Thank you for this blog. This is a very difficult topic to speak on. Its important that our schools recognize this topic as a serious problem among our teenagers. We need to find an effective solution to this growing topic. Our schools need funding and suicide programs need to be implemented in our schools.

    1. I am in favor for smaller schools at the middle school and high school level. Our schools have become too big for teachers to give the time and attention each child deserves. This increase in suicides at the middle school level is increasingly telling of how detached we have become from educating the whole child. Parents too have become consumed with work 24/7 and access to technology is one reason why the family dynamic has changed and there is an increase in depression among young children.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post. Working in a high school where there is an extreme level of importance placed on academics makes this topic one that I am unfortunately too familiar with. During my first year as a teacher I had a student who's brother had unexpectedly passed away the year prior in a car accident. The student had a very dark sense of humor, and one day stated that he had done so poorly on an exam that he should "just go crash his car into a tree" (which was how his brother passed). Although he kept arguing with me that he was "just joking", I waited with him until our school psychologist and intervention team were able to meet with him and assess the situation. I have found that often times our students will disguise their feelings with humor, and because of this, we must take all of the appropriate steps when comments of this nature are addressed. I really appreciated reading your post as it is sadly so relevant to what I see so often in my school on a regular basis.

  4. Hello,
    In 2018, a former preschooler of mine, committed suicide two months shy of his eighteenth birthday. I had the typical reactions: shock, denial, sadness etc. All I could think about was the rest of the family, (whom I know ) and what they were going through. I was heart broken that a student of mine had actually decided to hurt himself permanently. An entire community was grieving and the sad part about it was that he probably did not know how many lives he had touched. So sad. This"event", led to thoughts of, "How can I help prevent this?' I plan on joining a Teenage Suicide Prevention group and see how I can serve there.


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