A report by the Queensland Family and Child Commission reveals that suicide was the leading non-natural cause of death in children from 2016-17. From the five years to June 2017, 112 Queensland children took their lives. In April 2019, the ABC reported a 12-year-old narrowly survived a suicide attempt; prompting his distraught parents to call for more to be done across Government, schools and the wider society to protect susceptible children. The current SBS mini-series, The Hunting, starkly addresses one of the leading causes, which we have previously addressed: cyberbullying. While confronting and often disturbing, The Hunting is essential viewing for parents, and directly examines a high school’s response to major issues of sexting, dissemination of online child pornography, and associated school bullying.
Leading children’s mental health expert, Dr Pat McGorrie, says that discussing youth suicide and suicidal ideation is still taboo, despite increased awareness of the causes, such as bullying, anxiety, depression and stress; permeating the home, schools and throughout friendship groups, romantic relationships and the community. But we, as adults, must overcome our discomfort and primal fears in order to provide meaningful solutions. The American National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) highlights that children across their vulnerable, formative years spend a lot of time in school.
Teachers, parents, peers and administrative staff can recognise warning signs and must act immediately. NASP offers a range of actions that will assist teachers when signs are evident and suicidal tendencies are imminent. When a child discloses suicidal feelings (often the signs aren’t explicit) or you discover plans or feel the child is vulnerable, remain calm. Directly ask the child if they are thinking of suicide and listen to them without accusation or judgement. Assure them that they are safe to discuss this with you, though never promise not to disclose suicidal thoughts. Rather, seek support from the school, and especially encourage positive relationships in the child’s life. A positive school culture, which engenders respect for all, compassion and empathy is critical. Children thrive through enriching relationships and connection.
School Guidance counsellors are a particularly invaluable ally. They are trained to support children struggling with myriad issues affecting mental health; they will competently assess risk factors though direct one-to-one counselling, liaise with parents and Child Safety officers, conduct cognitive tests to reveal complicating factors, and can refer children-at-risk to community mental health services.
We spoke with a South Brisbane based school guidance counsellor for direct recommendations. He highlighted anxiety, cyberbullying, assessment pressures, friendship groups, dysfunctional communication with parents and confusion over future career choice to be the greatest concerns: ‘there are so many options (for the future); kids don’t know what to choose. They need to focus on transferable skills and uniquely human skills, e.g. creative thinking, problem-solving, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. Those are the areas where jobs are going to be stable.’