When we think about school safety, we tend to focus on preventing large-scale tragedies such as school shootings. Obviously, this is critical, and yet, more students die by suicide than perishing in mass attacks at their schools. Because suicides typically involve a single person, such deaths do not receive the overwhelming media coverage that rampage attacks receive. Nonetheless, suicide prevention needs to be an integral component of school safety.
Though many personality traits, mental health issues, life events, and ongoing stressors can contribute to people becoming suicidal, there are a few common themes that often appear in the minds of those who contemplate taking their own lives.
Hopelessness has been linked with suicide risk. It is common that people who are suicidal are not only suffering currently, but they see their suffering as endless. It is hard to keep going in life when one’s entire future looks bleak, with no hope that things will ever improve. When people feel depressed and hopeless, their thinking is often skewed to see only the negative, not the positive things in their lives. They also lose sight of the fact that feelings of hopelessness come and go, and that as bad as things seem today, tomorrow or next week or next year, their lives could be dramatically better.
Another frequent factor is what has been called “thwarted belongingness.” This refers to people’s sense that they are wholly unliked, that they do not fit into any group, that they are essentially alone and isolated. People who believe that they have no support group or social network—even if this is a distorted perception—may give up on life.
In contrast to thwarted belongingness, people who know that their parents and relatives care about them, that they have friends they can turn to, school personnel they can confide in, a job or activity that they find meaningful, or professionals who provide guidance, are more likely to survive even devastating stressors or traumatic events. Positive social connections are considered to be “protective factors” against suicide. This does not mean that people with positive social connections are immune to depression and behaviors related to suicide, but protective factors reduce the risk.
The concept of “perceived burdensomeness” means that people believe they cause so many problems for their loved ones that they have become a burden to the people they care most about. Such people are prone to thinking that everyone around them will be better off if they kill themselves. Like hopelessness, perceived burdensomeness can be a severe distortion of reality. Loved ones are typically imbued with concern for the people in their lives that are at risk and will do whatever they can to keep them safe.
The topic of suicide prevention is large and multi-faceted. This short article highlights common factors associated with suicide risk. When we encounter people who seem hopeless, isolated, and/or like a burden to those around them, it is critical that they be directed to mental health professionals. Being aware of the risk factors of suicide and taking appropriate action can and does save lives.
Dr. Peter Langman is the foremost authority on school shootings in the country. His 25 years as a psychologist and counselor has given him first-hand experience with potential perpetrators of school violence. Dr. Langman has translated his expertise into five informative books, such as Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters (2009). Dr. Langman has collaborative relationships with the U.S. Secret Service and FBI.
Check out his informative website