Schools discuss suicide prevention strategies

You’re a teacher. A student confides in you feelings of depression, a propensity to hurt himself or herself, or suicidal thoughts.

What do you do?

A recent two-hour workshop at Mount Carmel Academy led by a Children’s Hospital psychiatrist, a psychiatric nurse and two members of the Mercy Family Center’s suicide prevention team gave insight on the prevalence of suicide and a teacher’s role in responding to at-risk students.

Two suicide prevention specialists with Partners in Prevention (PiP) – a program of Mercy Family Center’s Project Fleur-de-Lis – detailed suicide statistics, facts, risk factors, warning signs and how teachers can encourage a troubled student’s conversation, not attempt to fix a perceived problem.

The clinicians – John Hill, LCSW-BACS, and Tuyl Mogabgab, LCSW, MPH – developed PiP, the school-based suicide-prevention program of Project Fleur-de-lis.

Hill offered alarming statistics from the World Health Organization: Suicide ranks as the second-leading cause of death worldwide for individuals between the ages of 15-20; and 25 percent of those who attempt suicide between the ages of 13-34 decide within 15 minutes to kill themselves and actually attempt it.

Tools to use

The statistical overview was followed by psychiatric nurse Theresa Jacobsen, RN, BSN, a Children’s Hospital clinical psychiatric liaison, who imparted practical tools teachers can use to spot suicidal tendencies.

Listening and empathizing and clarifying what a student says are the initial tools that can change a student’s suicidal thoughts, Jacobsen said.

She advised teachers to use open-ended questions to clarify and acknowledge what a student is saying and use direct statements if suicide is mentioned. “‘What I am hearing is you are having thoughts of suicide…’ Bringing that out in the open is not going to give them the idea – that is a myth.”

“Once they are talking to you and opening up to you, you have to realize you are not the super champion, you are part of a team and need to go to the part of the team who is a professional (a counselor), who will decide if you need to go to next step (a hospital or mental-health setting),” Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen, who has 25 years’ experience as a mental health educator, said Catholic school teachers should recognize that in addition to secular tools, they as a faith-based community have a deep-rooted tool on hand: the Catholic faith.

Faith is the foundation, the “No. 1 coping skill” on which students can find strength and build upon during the troubling teen years. Her Catholic faith, she told them, helped her persevere after her husband’s death.

“Coping skills, communication, affirmation – all these tools we teach for prevention are wonderful, but the main tool is our faith, and we have an opportunity to create a prevention program using faith, using prayer,” Jacobsen said, emphasizing that faith is the backbone when issues such as substance abuse, bullying, stress and suicide occur.

“It all comes down to building the foundation of faith and teaching the tools to develop a culture of caring,” she said.

Jacobsen relayed a personal story about her early experiences working with youth and being caught up in the “super human, teacher-friend trap.” She said if a student entrusts life-threatening information, the teacher must break the confidence and seek further help, saying, “Because I care about you so much, I can’t keep this secret. We need to go and talk to someone. I will stay with you.”

“Teachers aren’t to think they have to go do it all themselves,” Jacobsen said. “They must realize that they are part of a school team that can address teens in crisis” and do a “warm hand-off” to the next level of mental health care, according to the school’s protocols.

Jacobsen worked with Sister of Mount Carmel Mary Ellen Wheelahan, the archdiocese’s safe environment coordinator, to coordinate the training for suicide intervention and prevention strategies that meet the required two hours of training mandated for all schools by a state law (House Bill No. 452) passed in the 2017 legislative session.

The presentation also included insight from Dr. Andrew Williams, Jacobsen’s Children’s Hospital co-worker and medical director. Children’s Hospital has a 33-bed, acute psychiatric unit that provides a nurturing and compassionate environment to help troubled teens develop coping skills through cognitive behavior therapy and sharing like emotions with their peers so they know they are not alone.

Williams knows suicide is a dark subject, but because it is a top killer of young people, it is vital to address. He said adolescents are going through what Erik Erikson stated in his “Theory of Psychosocial Development” as identity or role confusion “about who they are, where they are, their religious beliefs, where they are going.”

Life is so overwhelming to some that they can’t see their way out and thus consider suicide. Drugs, such as marijuana and alcohol, greatly impact suicide.

He told teachers how important it is for them “to reach out and be warm and compassionate for the people (they) are with” if a student opens up about their dark feelings. The thoughts before a suicide attempt are important to recognize and interrupt, so the teacher’s reaction is critical.

“You can be the difference in saving that life,” Williams said.

Mount Carmel Academy videotaped the workshop in two, one-hour segments for future availability for all schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It will be on the administrators’ portal of the Office of Catholic Schools website:

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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