It’s been heavy in our youth group this past month, with one suicidal teen after another. A 15-year-old guy made one last desperate call just as he was about to pop 100 Advil. A 14-year-old girl texted me, saying, “I don’t know how to talk about how I feel so many things all bottled up inside me and I think I am at the point of just bursting out.” And a depressed 12-year-old wrote a letter in blood, wanting to end her life.
A Suicidal Teen: Our Immediate Response
Here’s the bottom line. If you think you have a suicidal student, you must act now. By law, you have 24 hours to report it. But here’s the good news. (Really, there is good news? YES!) The average suicidal episode lasts around 30 days. So if you’re able to stand by that student through this period of time, you will likely have helped save his or her life! That’s good news.
So often, we youth workers feel ill-equipped to deal with the threat of suicide. If you’ve been around students very long, then you know that you never know what to expect. We have to be prepared for the worst—suicidal teen threats and attempts—as best as we can.
The guidance below is proven to work.
Practical Questions to Ask: S.L.A.P.P.
When assessing the severity of a potential suicidal teen, many trained professionals use the S.L.A.P.P.* acronym. I use this every time I suspect someone is threatening his or her own life. Use this helpful acronym as a way to assess the risk at hand and potentially save a life:
S – How SPECIFIC is the plan?
“Yeah, my dad’s guns and ammo are in the cabinet, and I’m doin’ it Friday night out by the ravine” is more urgent than “I dunno—there are lots of ways I could do it.”
L – How LETHAL is the method?
A gun represents even greater urgency than a drug overdose. Although both are potentially lethal, the latter does offer a small window of opportunity for someone to intervene.
A – How AVAILABLE is the method?
“I’m jumpin’ off the bridge this Friday” is less urgent than “I’m holding the gun as we speak.” Both clearly are cause for action, however.
P – What is the PROXIMITY of help?
“I’m in my room, and my parents are downstairs watching TV” is more hopeful than “I’m at our summer cottage, and no one’s around me for miles.”
P – Have you had PREVIOUS ATTEMPTS?
“This is my fourth time trying to kill myself” is different from “This is my first time.” Although you must take both extremely seriously, it’s more likely that a parent or guardian is aware if a suicidal teen made previous attempts.
*I’ve added the extra P for previous attempts, because this is an extremely important question. It also helps with assessment.
Thankfully, the three students from the beginning of this article are alive today. In part, that’s due to loving, caring youth workers who stood by them, helped them find professional help, and gave them a sense of hope. The journey continues for these kids and for any depressed or suicidal teen. So as servants of Christ, let’s remember to be in it with these precious lives for the long haul.