The recent tragic death of a Catoosa ninth grader by suicide at school has everyone asking the questions: why suicide and why at school?

There are no definite answers as to why youth attempt and complete suicide. And there is limited research on the psychology of the meaning of where a suicide takes place. The setting for suicide could indicate concerns the youth had in that environment or it could be the youth thought it was a location where there would be less opportunity for someone to intervene or it could be a location of impulse.

Unfortunately, youth suicide is higher than the national average in our state. Oklahoma ranks 10th in the nation for youth suicides. Thoughts of suicide also are not uncommon for teens. One in five U.S. teenagers has seriously considered suicide.

An adolescent having thoughts of wanting to die may be feeling sad, angry, lonely, embarrassed, rejected, guilty, powerless or worthless. But one thing for certain is that they weren’t thinking clearly at the time and coupled with an adolescents often limited impulse control, a suicide attempt is often an impulsive response to specific circumstances rather than a true wish to die. The youth often just wants to stop the (emotional) pain that seems unbearable. The adolescent feels hopeless about their situation and doesn’t think things will change.

The middle and high school years are a challenging developmental time for youth. The difficulties are amplified for youth who struggle academically, socially, behaviorally, have limited (if any) extra curricular activities, do not feel a connectedness to their school, or have issues going on at home. In addition to the feelings described above, there are many feelings an adolescent may develop related to the school environment. They may feel overwhelmed, anxious, revengeful, embarrassed or humiliated, isolated, bullied, overly self-critical, have perfectionist tendencies, or feel pressure to achieve or perform at a certain level.

In addition, there are particular transitions and events that could make a youth who is already struggling emotionally, even more vulnerable. This includes: graduations, birthdays, anniversaries of sad or tragic events, romantic break-ups or rejection, household disruptions (someone moving in or out, domestic violence, abuse, divorce, move, loss of income, substance abuse, etc.), after a discipline action (school or home), being in an embarrassing or humiliating situation (real or perceived)- including things posted on social media sites, sexual identity issues (real or perceived), grief/loss issue, and the completed suicide of a family member or someone they know. These concerns are especially important for school staff to be aware of since school is where youth spend a significant percentage of their day- nearly everyday.   Thus schools are also in a unique position to lead community efforts on youth suicide intervention and prevention in partnership with area community mental health agencies.

What can we do?

Be aware of the youth in your community and in your life. Listen to their words and observe their behaviors.

Develop youth focused programs in the school setting that focus on:

  • Strategies to cope with stressors and difficult feelings, substance abuse prevention
  • Developing bonds and feelings of connectedness between youth and their school. Promote mentoring programs and school-based counseling services.
  • Be knowledgeable of your community resources.
  • Work to ensure all school staff (from principals to janitors,  and teachers to cafeteria workers and bus drivers) are trained in basic suicide intervention and prevention strategies.
  • Communicate with your school board members to ensure their support and commitment to school policies and procedures that work to enhance the safety and well-being of staff and students.
  • Talk with youth about significant changes you notice in their activity level, friend choices, grades, mood, risky behaviors you observe them in, substance abuse, and changes in appearance and/or eating and sleeping habits.

Being aware of and talking together about these warning signs is a crucial step in intervening with a youth in crisis.

If you have concerns that a youth may be having thoughts of suicide, ask about your concerns. Such as, “I’m concerned about you. Your grades have really dropped, you seem sad and down most of the time, and I see you sitting alone at lunch everyday.” If the response back seems indicative of having suicidal thoughts, ask the youth directly about it. “Are you having thoughts of wanting to die?” A common MYTH is that asking a person about suicidal thoughts will plant the idea in their head. This is FALSE! If you have concerns about suicide you need to act immediately. It is imperative to get the youth to a crisis center, hospital or mental health facility as soon as possible for an evaluation.

The Tulsa area has many great suicide prevention and intervention resources:There are many great suicide

  • The CALM Center at Counseling & Recovery Services where youth ages 10-17 in crisis can come for crisis care, assessment and support 24 hours a day 365 days a year regardless of ability to pay. Call 918.394.2256 (CALM) for more details.
  • COPES mobile crisis unit
  • Shadow Mountain Behavioral Health
  • OSU-Tulsa Medical Center
  • Parkside
  • Laureate
  • 211

The national suicide prevention hotline also is answered 24 hours a day, 356 days a year: 1.800.273.TALK (8255).

Sonia Treptow, (us) LPC is a Counseling & Recovery Services intake therapist and a trainer/presenter on the LIFELINE suicide prevention and intervention curriculum. It includes helpful components for youth, parents, teachers, and other professionals. To schedule training or more information, contact her at 918.492.2554 or streptow@crsok.org.

By Director of Children ‘s Services Kimberly Parker, M.Ed., L.P.C.