By Kareem A. Jones, M.Ed.
Many parents do not know the legal obligations of school faculty when a student reports having suicidal ideations.
While schools do differ on their policies regarding suicide, there is a legal obligation for them to react in a way that gets the child help and ensures that they are safe.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth aged 10 to 24. So when child is crying out for help, these cries cannot be ignored by the school or parents.
As a licensed professional school counselor, here are a few of the common questions I receive from parents when this situation happens.
The fact your child reports she wants to kill herself is enough for any school staff to make the call. They are then legally required to report it to the school who then contacts the child’s parents or legal guardian.
The process for determining the likelihood your child needs immediate assistance considers the following three levels of suicidal ideation:
Telling someone on staff she desires to kill herself
Having a history of attempting to kill herself
Having access to the means to follow through with it
Some schools and outpatient mental health facilities have a contract to have a therapist in the school. This therapist is not the same as the school counselor. The therapist does not have any access to your child without your consent. However, during the process for determining the seriousness of her suicidal ideation, the school counselor is qualified to do an initial assessment as well as contact local hospitals to have someone do another assessment.
Each school has a different policy for handling suicidal ideations. I think it is in the best interest of the child to get her the immediate help she needs. However, if you are not able to pick up your child, there are things the school can do in order to make sure your child is safe until you or someone is able to get her. Ask the school what they have in place until you get there.
In some cases, when parents do not take the appropriate action, it can lead the school to report medical neglect to the Department of Children’s/Child Services (DCS) or Child Protective Services (CPS). If a hospital assessment determines she needs additional care, please get your child the help she needs. In some cases, that might mean a hospital stay, which is usually around one to two weeks. The hospital will determine if your child needs to stay additional time. Some insurance companies will view your hesitation as a non-emergency and will not pay for the bed if you wait a certain number of days.
The psychiatric hospital will do a thorough assessment to determine your child's needs. It's important to keep in mind that there are times when suicidal ideations do not require immediate hospitalization.
A Safety Plan is a written document completed by the therapist or social worker assigned to your child during her hospital stay. You and your child will sign the document stating that you agree to follow the plan. The document lists warning signs, coping skills, professional organizations to contact and how to make the child’s environment safe.
The Safety Plan lists people, such as family members and friends of your choosing, who will be available to talk to your child and to pick her up from school if you are not. Please inform family members and friends you have them on your child’s Safety Plan. They will need a copy of the plan as well. It’s a good idea to have them attend a suicide prevention training to help them understand suicidal ideation and their responsibilities outlined in the Safety Plan. Also, you need to provide a copy of the plan to the principal and school counselor.
Your child's admission to a mental health facility is confidential. If your child tells some of her friends she has been to a psychiatric hospital, chances are this information will get to other students. The best thing to do is educate.
School counselors and therapists are advocates for students. Ask the ones at your child’s school to have classroom guidance lessons about mental health and to dispel myths. In addition, your child needs to have a strong support system and good coping skills.
When a child reports she is thinking about suicide, it is a cry for help. That’s why it is very important for parents, educators and mental health professionals to work together to do what is in the best interest of the child during this time. It is a matter of life and death.
It is important your child attends her regularly scheduled individual counseling sessions. It is also important for parents and guardians to attend their scheduled family sessions. Understanding the levels of suicidal ideation, knowing your child’s triggers, helping her to use her coping skills and contacting the appropriate people are all essential for your child’s safety.
Kareem A. Jones is a licensed professional school counselor and has worked in the mental health and educational fields for 14 years. Kareem currently works for a school district as a career counselor. He has written articles as a staff reporter and columnist for the University of Mississippi’s newspaper, The Daily Mississippian.
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