Educating Students about Suicide Prevention
Wisconsin law requires schools to educate students about suicide prevention using health curriculum. Working with health educators from around the state, DPI has created a model health class curriculum for middle and high school that meets all the requirements in state law. Using the links below, you can download these curricula as well as learn about additional reasons to educate students, how to educate them in a way that doesn’t raise risk factors, and ways to connect your classroom education to other activities in your school.
Why should schools educate students about suicide and how to respond?
The easy answer is that it's required under state law. (“Wisconsin laws addressing youth suicide prevention and intervention” web page.) The law was created because the legislature understood that by educating students about the best way to respond, we can save lives. Research continues to corroborate this understanding. DPI's curricula are focused on middle and high school students, where suicides are most common. At the elementary level, DPI suggests schools focus on bullying prevention, school and classroom climate, life skills such as problem-solving and decision-making, and counseling and mental health services that are responsive to individual student concerns.
Classroom educational programs have been shown to reduce suicide rates (SOS Program), tendencies, and attempts, and at the same time increase knowledge about risks, warning signs, and coping skills. Research has shown that youth worry about making the wrong judgment about suicidal tendencies in their friends, not knowing how to respond to a suicide threat, being hospitalized, losing friendships, and seeming like they can't handle their own problems (see Cigularov, K, et. al., "What Prevents Adolescents from Seeking Help After a Suicide Education Program?" Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 38(1) Feb 2008, p.74-86). Classroom education can help students deal with each of these concerns.
Won't this give them ideas or normalize suicidal behavior?
The quick answer is, "Not if we do it right." If schools don't follow the research into best practices, risk factors can increase. This is one reason we strongly suggest school staff attend one of the free DPI workshops on youth suicide prevention before engaging in classroom instruction in this area. Also, be sure to follow the guidelines in whatever evidence-based curriculum you select to be sure your program has a positive effect. The suggestions below will help your school address potential negative effects of classroom education about suicide prevention.
Suggestions for Classroom-Based Suicide Prevention
- Encourage collaboration between health education and pupil services to implement your classroom curriculum. Because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, having a pupil services professional co-teach this unit with a health educator is a useful way to ensure that student concerns can be addressed either in class or after class in the pupil services professional's office. It may be useful for the pupil services professional to serve mainly in the role of observer to notice the student's reactions to the lessons, but they may want to present a lesson or two. Finally, share that the pupil services professional is willing to help with any concerns students might have on suicide-related issues.
- Do coordinate your classroom educational programming with other suicide prevention programming in your school and/or community (i.e. All-Staff "Gatekeeper" Training).
- Don't have assemblies or large-group training events for students. Some research has shown this type of event may raise risk factors because students don't have an easy way to communicate that they have concerns about themselves or others, and then there is no effective way to follow up on those concerns. We strongly suggest that schools implement suicide prevention education using the health class curriculum. School health educators and pupil services professionals are usually the only trained and appropriately placed individuals to educate students about this issue.
- We do not suggest that parents of those who have died by suicide (or individuals who have made suicide attempts and lived to tell about it) have an opportunity to talk with groups of students.
- Don't normalize suicide behavior by training students to think that death by suicide is common or a normal response to a stressful event. Instead, share the data about suicide while emphasizing that it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and that suicidal behavior usually occurs with a mental health disorder that is treatable (like depression). This is why we train students to respond appropriately to their peer's expressions of suicidal intent through the curricula below.
Downloading Classroom Curricula
In addition to the "Do's and Don'ts" above, we encourage you to thoroughly read the "Educator Preparation before the Delivery of the Suicide Prevention Curriculum" in the introductory pages of the DPI curricula below.
- Download DPI's Suicide Prevention Grades 7-12
- Download full page pictures
- The DPI curricula includes a selection from the Signs of Suicide (SOS) curriculum that can be borrowed from your CESA library or purchased. Highlights of SOS include:
- Strong evidence for effectiveness
- Includes materials for students, parents, and staff
- Enough materials for 300 students in each kit
- Visit the website of Screening for Mental Health for more information on the SOS curriculum.
Other Curriculum Resources
Resources for Elementary Level
It is recommended to focus on skill-building, social emotional learning, and climate building at the elementary level. Below are some recommendations.
- DPI’s Bullying Prevention Curriculum
- Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning (CASEL) for related curriculum
- PBIS for social skills, problem-solving, and improving climate