Supporting students with suicidal thoughts

When talking to a young person with suicidal ideation it’s vital to make them feel safe. Nina Jackson offers warning signs to look out for and conversation starters to use

Author details

Nina is a special educational needs and disabilities consultant with over 30 years' experience as a teacher, senior leader and therapist. She now works as an international advisor and trainer working with children, teachers, leaders and parents....

It is not common for most people to spark up conversations about suicide which is why if someone does then you really need to listen. Any of the following are indicative of someone thinking about suicide and are signs to not just look out for but to listen out for.

  • Talking about suicide or death that has been on the news.
  • Claiming suicide is the right way to die.
  • Saying it’s better to take your own life than be killed.
  • Saying there's nothing wrong about suicide.
  • Talking about their own death - what will be on their headstone or who will attend the funeral.
  • Seeing suicide as the only way to enter heaven.
  • Believing suicide will make them immortal.
  • Talking about methods of suicide or where to buy resources to help them end their own life.

Talking to a young person

Do not be afraid to talk about suicide, although it can feel intimidating. If you overhear any of the above, offer your support in a calm and straightforward way. The most important thing is to make a young person feel safe. Try guiding the conversation away from suicide and negativity with some of the following.

  • I'd rather talk about life than death.
  • Life is more important than death.
  • No one should suffer so badly they choose to take their own life.
  • Ask if they have felt this way before.
  • Let them know you care about them and they are important to you.
  • Encourage them to speak to you or write a note.
  • Ask them what's going on in their life.
  • Ask them why they are feeling this way and ask what you can do to help?

Risk factors

Risk factors are different to warning signs. They are usually out of an individual’s control whereas warning signs are what someone might display when they are considering suicide as an option. The major categories of risk factors include:

  • isolation and social inequality
  • violence, abuse, bullying
  • self-harm.

Risk factors come from many areas such as family, friends, society, culture, ways of living, and environmental influences to name a few. Someone thinking about suicide may feel hopeless for many reasons such as seeing themselves as weak, thinking of themselves as worthless or feeling that everything they do is wrong.

What can you do?

At a basic level, simply talking about mental health is as good a level of mental health awareness and intervention as any. Have regular conversations about mental health across the curriculum and think about wellbeing ambassadors or buddies to look out for each other.

Listen, observe, talk, report and share. It is crucial to be aware if warning signs. Open the conversation and talk about suicide; do not make the word suicide or self-harm taboo.

Arrange for both larger discussions to take place, such as assembles with mental health themes, as well as conversations in small groups where people may feel more comfortable discussing any issues or how they are feeling.

A young person experiencing suicidal thoughts needs to have a sense of belonging and to feel wanted. That in turn gives them hope and they start to become more optimistic about the future.

Conversation starters

  • I’m here for you, whatever you need and whenever you need it.
  • You are not alone.
  • You do not need to suffer in silence, we can do this together.
  • I'll listen for as long as you need.
  • I'm not going anywhere.
  • I don’t want you to struggle on your own.
  • I always have time for you.
  • Let's talk about the amazing qualities you have.
  • Shall we just sit? You don't have to talk right now.

What to do next

Asking one question and getting one answer is a great starting point but a conversation needs to continue. We want to guide the conversation away from harm and negativity.

The most important thing to remember is to keep the conversation focused on them. It is fine to talk about our own experiences and own life but don’t lose track of the aim of the conversations, which is to talk about their feeling and emotions.

If you get lost in your own words or feel things going in the wrong direction, then use the following to break up the conversation.

  • Give them a compliment or say something nice about them.
  • Let them know they are safe and you are in this together.
  • Let them know you are there to listen.
  • Talk about their future; make plans together.
Last Updated: 
26 May 2022