3 Myths Dispelled about Student Suicide Prevention

School Community, Well-being

Suicide Prevention: 6 Questions School Leaders Should Ask

“Doing something” and “doing the right thing” are not always the same thing

Download the Fact Sheet. (447.63 kB / pdf)

Pin it on your staff bulletin board.


Suicide prevention is a highly emotional topic and pressure may come from parents, communities, and the media to “do something” when such a tragic incident occurs. Suicide prevention programs are not a part of usual pedagogy and when a suicide event occurs it is important that school leaders, policy makers and politicians:

  • Understand the lack of available evidence on suicide prevention strategies;
  • Recognize the importance for districts/schools not to rush into purchasing and applying the latest shiny new suicide prevention program;
  • Support students and teachers to develop good mental health literacy while ensuring an inviting, welcoming, and suitably challenging environment for all students;
  • Continue to develop school staff’s capacities to identify, triage, refer, and support students who have a mental illness, as most youth who die by suicide have a mental illness.

These four approaches have stronger potential to prevent student suicide than those currently offered by slickly marketed suicide prevention programs.

Important questions to ask when implementing a school-based suicide prevention program include:

  1. Is the program being sold? Are there training costs, licence fees, or renewals? If so – buyer beware. If not – user be careful.
  2. Is there independent evidence (not evidence created or funded by the program developer or purveyor) that the program decreases suicide rates in young people? Do not accept “evidence-based” self-reported measures of knowledge about suicide, confidence in talking about suicide, intent to seek help, confidence in supporting those who may be having suicidal thoughts, willingness to talk to someone if suicidal, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts – none of these are valid measures of suicide prevention. Because a program is listed on a “mental health registry” does not mean that it is effective or safe.
  3. Does the school have a well-established and clearly defined protocol for identification and in-school assessment of students who are exhibiting suicide-related behaviours/cognition?
  4. Is there a well-established link to local expert mental healthcare providers who are willing and able to immediately assess a student that the intervention has identified as needing follow-up?
  5. What are other available programs in the marketplace? Are they better, safer or less expensive than the one under consideration? (See item #1 above)
  6. What will implementation of the program cost – direct, indirect and opportunity cost? What will you not be able to deliver if you choose to apply this program?

School leaders need to do things that they know can prevent suicide, while avoiding those that we know do not prevent suicide, are unsure of, or could even cause more harm than good. “Doing something” and “doing the right thing” are not always the same thing.


Additional Information Resources

EdCan Network: School Mental Health Literacy: A national curriculum guide shows promising results



Knightsmith P. Youth suicide prevention research needs a shake-up: lives depend on it. 2018. Accessible from https://www.nationalelfservice.net/mental-health/suicide/youth-suicide-prevention-research-needs-a-shake-up-lives-depend-on-it/

Kutcher S., Wei Y. The vexing challenge of suicide prevention: a research informed perspective on a recent systematic review. 2016. Accessible from https://www.nationalelfservice.net/mental-health/suicide/vexing-challenge-suicide-prevention-research-informed-perspective-recent-systematic-review/

King CA., Arango A., Kramer A., et., al. Association of the Youth-Nominated Support Team Intervention for Suicidal Adolescents With 11- to 14-Year Mortality Outcomes. Secondary Analysis of a Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2019. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.4358

Schilling EA, Lawless M, Buchanan L, et al.  Signs of Suicide shows promise as a middle school suicide prevention program. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2014; 44(6): 653-67.

Bailey E, et al. Universal Suicide Prevention in Young People: An evaluation of the safeTALK Program in Australian High Schools. Crisis. 2017; 38(5), 300-308.

Kutcher S., et al. School-and Community-Based Youth Suicide Prevention Interventions: Hot Idea, Hot Air, or Sham?  The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. (2016): 1-7.

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Stan Kutcher

Professor, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, Dalhousie University

Dr. Stan Kutcher is the Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health and professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Dalhousie University and IWK Health Centre. Dr. Kutcher is an internationally renowned expert in the area of adolescent mental health and a national and international leader in mental health research, advocacy, training, policy, and health services innovation.

Read More

Dr. Yifeng Wei

Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Dalhousie University

Dr. Yifeng Wei’s research interests include knowledge translation in school mental health, focusing on promoting mental health literacy, reducing stigma of mental illness and improving help-seeking ...

Read More
Andrew Baxter

Andrew Baxter

Project Coordinator and Educator

Andrew Baxter MSW RSW has worked in School Based and Community Mental Health for over 18 years.  During his time with Alberta Health Services, he has provided direct treatment for s...

Read More