The School Counselor and Suicide Risk Assessment
ASCA PositionSchool counselors support best practice in suicide prevention to reduce suicide risk in children and adolescents and are part of a collaborative team who respond when students are identified as at-risk for suicide. When becoming aware of a student considering suicide, school counselors assert their ethical and legal responsibility to report suspected suicide risk to parents/ guardians and the appropriate authorities.
The RationaleU.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data reveals that from 2007 to 2017, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for persons aged 10–19 and that suicide rates have been steadily increasing (Curtin and Heron, 2017). Because school counselors work with all students through the delivery of school counseling programs, school counselors are in a position to raise awareness among students, families and the education community regarding student suicide and assist educators in understanding how to recognize and respond to suicide risk.
The School Counselor's RoleThrough their work in classroom, group and individual settings, school counselors work to create supportive relationships with all students and to identify students’ social/emotional needs (ASCA, 2019). Through these interactions as well as through consultation with school staff, school counselors may become aware that a student could be at risk for suicide by report from the student, the student’s peers or school staff. School counselors are acutely aware that if they are placed on notice by any of these means, they must always notify parents/guardians about this risk. The exception is when the parent/ guardian’s abuse or neglect is the expressed reason for the student’s suicidal ideation. In these cases, the school counselor must contact child protective services.
School counselors support the development of district policy based on best practices in suicide prevention (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American School Counselor Association, National Association of School Psychologists & The Trevor Project, 2019). When district suicide-risk protocols are in place, school counselors must follow them, but they advocate for change when the protocols do not comply with ethical standards (ASCA, 2016). When the school district does not have a written suicide protocol for school personnel or the policy does not comply with ethical standards and school counselor scope of practice, school counselors advocate for the team-based creation of suicide-risk policies and procedures supporting students’ mental health needs and aligned with team members’ competencies.
If state legislation or school board policy requires a schoolwide screening program, school counselors advocate for ethical use of valid and reliable instruments with concerns for cultural sensitivity and bias (ASCA, 2016). School counselors also advocate as a non-negotiable that parents/guardians are to be notified of any suicidal ideation. Regardless of whether the student is 18 years of age or older, school counselors’ ethical imperative is to notify parents/guardians of their child’s suicidal ideation (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 2020; Stone, 2017).
If school counselors are required to use assessments, screenings or any type of instrument to determine the suicide risk, they advocate that they are never required to negate any level of risk of harm, as students may tell school counselors what they believe will get them out from under scrutiny. School counselors also advocate that the school district has a policy whereby parents/guardians are always contacted and notified of anything learned through an investigation of potential suicide, or with any instrument, that will guide parents/guardians in efforts to protect their child. Contacting parents/guardians is the school counselor’s primary responsibility (Stone, 2017).
When a student is suicidal and in crisis in school, the school counselor’s primary role is to keep the student safe until the student can be transferred to the parents/guardians. Before releasing the student to the parents/guardians, school counselors:
- are clear with parents/guardians about what is known regarding the student’s suicidal ideation
- do not negate the risk of harm based on a student’s self-report
- avoid using words or phrases such as “impulse control” or “low risk” in an effort to soften the message
- strongly encourage parents/guardians to seek a medical or mental health provider for a comprehensive assessment of their child
- help the family find resources if needed
SummarySchool counselors support best practice in suicide prevention to reduce suicide risk in children and adolescents and are part of a collaborative team who respond when students are identified as at-risk for suicide. When students are identified or are in crisis, school counselors support them by providing parents/guardians with appropriate information and referrals. School counselors are aware of the many legal and ethical implications associated with students who are contemplating suicide and adhere to them in their practice.
ReferencesAmerican Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American School Counselor Association, National Association of School Psychologists & The Trevor Project (2019). Model school district policy on suicide prevention: Model language, commentary, and resources (2nd ed.). New York: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
American School Counselor Association (2016). ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors. Alexandria, VA: American School Counselor Association.
American School Counselor Association (2019). ASCA National Model: A Framework for School Counseling Programs (4th edition). Alexandria, VA: American School Counselor Association.
Curtin, S.C., & Heron, M. (2019). Death rates due to suicide and homicide among persons aged 10–24: United States, 2000–2017. NCHS Data Brief, no 352. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. (2020). The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act: Guidance for eligible students. United States Department of Education, Family Policy Compliance Office. https://studentprivacy.ed.gov/sites/default/files/resource_document/file/FERPAforeligiblestudents.pdf
Stone, C. (2017). School counseling principles: Ethics and Law (4th Ed.). American School Counselor Association.