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Some tips on how to talk about suicide and self-harm with your students and kids

I recently returned from speaking at an ACHPER Conference in WA and to be brutally honest, wasn’t expecting what happened while I was there to have happened.

I was the last cab off the rank at the end of a full-on two day conference and the topic I was presenting wasn’t exactly cheery.

However, the room was full and the audience was definitely engaged.

The biggest shocks were:

  1. Just how hungry for this information teachers were

  2. How many primary school teachers were looking for help/support/advice/guidance on this topic

  3. How many teachers have had direct experience with kids who have either self-harmed or suicided

  4. Just how taboo this subject still is.

It made me realise just how much more I need to talk about it. Just how much more I need to wave and raise the flag about it and how, for once in my life, I’m beginning to feel of value and like I genuinely have something that can help!

My brother committed suicide at the age of 19. I found my mum when she attempted the first time when I was 15 (since then she’s tried (unsuccessfully) a handful of other times) so I kinda feel like I have (sadly!) some credibility when it comes to talking about the topic.

The first thing I think I’d say, which might sound slightly counter-intuitive, is not to focus on suicide itself. You see, underlying all of this is connection and ours and our kids’ inability to talk about and acknowledge their feelings. They’re not versed in differentiating (and nor should they be expected to, given no-one talks about this stuff openly) feeling crap and the varying degrees of crappiness that can be felt and encountered. Neither do they have an understanding of what's 'normal' and what isn't and finally, they certainly don't compute that 'this too shall pass'.

One good activity or task would be to grab some loo roll - come on, don’t be shy, I know you’ll have some extra stashed somewhere! Tear off three strips and ask the kids to write down on the bits of loo paper, the last time they felt crap and what it related to. Encouraging them to cover off a spectrum of events (from losing a sports game/falling out with a mate, to losing a loved one)

Then, you could discuss the following questions with the class:

1. What would you normally do with toilet paper after it’s been used?

ANS: Throw away/flush/get rid of

2. Do we view emotions such as “feeling crappy” in the same way?

ANS: Do we try to push the emotions away/not feel them?

ANS: Do we try to ignore it and pretend it never happened?

3. What would happen if instead of “flushing” away our feelings we took a moment to explore them, unpack what’s driving the feeling and what it is telling us?

Responses to this question could include:

  • Emotions are important to experience.

  • Emotions tell us something, they give us a message.

  • Emotions derive from primitive times when they were designed to keep us alive,

  • the issue is we now don’t face the same threats that we used to and sometimes

  • the emotions we feel can be confusing.

  • If you feel angry that often means that something has happened that is against

  • your values/beliefs.

  • If you feel anxious or scared that is a natural reaction to a perceived threat.

This is just one of many ideas for a class/home activity that safely and emotionally intelligently opens up and holds space for you to have a conversation about their feelings. Ultimately, what we’re trying to highlight here, is that it’s OK not to be OK, and the more we can talk about our feelings and see and hear our peers doing the same then we can start to gauge where someone’s really at and offer them the right kind of support.

There are many dos and don’ts when it comes to talking to your kids about suicide and self harm but that doesn’t give you carte blanche to ignore it altogether. Suicide is Australia’s number one killer of 15-24 year olds. Be smart, get yourself comfortable with the subject, and never underestimate how much help you can be for your students and kids if you’re just willing to go there with them.

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