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How to identify signs of suicide during exams?

As a parent, teacher or friend, you can intervene at the right time to support a student who may be contemplating suicide during the exam season

Do you know a school going child or adolescent who appears irritated, cranky, or under significant stress during the examinations? Do you wonder if they are able to handle the stress, or do you sometimes worry, what if…?

The weeks before and during the exam and days before the results is critical for students. This is the time when they are under immense stress, trying to deal with expectations – their own, as well as that of their parents and teachers.

As a parent, teacher or a friend, you could help save a life by acting as a gatekeeper to a student who is vulnerable

Unlike adults, children may not be able to express their emotional state, or reach out for support when they need it. Their distress may be shown through changes in their behavior.

Children and teenagers, who have suicidal thoughts or ideation, may show uncharacteristic changes in their behavior, such as:

  • Speaking about death wishes or wanting to die

  • Being uncharacteristically silent, or spending most of their time in their room

  • Appetite changes: Eating too much, too little; consuming excessive junk food, food with high salt content or caffeinated energy drinks;

  • Being uncharacteristically moody; getting angry or upset for minor reasons

  • Throwing temper tantrums or venting out their anger on to parents or siblings

  • Being unusually anxious (even if they are not anxious by nature)

  • Losing interest in activities they enjoyed earlier

  • Insisting on visiting friends and relatives as if they would not get an opportunity to meet them again

  • Giving away their precious belongings

  • Becoming suddenly dependent on alcohol or cigarettes or online shopping

Students who are under significant stress may offer verbal hints (Statements like:
“If I were dead, I wouldn’t have to write exams at all” or “It’s only because of me that you have to worry so much”).

Who can be vulnerable?

Any student, irrespective of their academic performance, can be vulnerable to having suicidal thoughts or ideation. Students who have experienced recent traumatic experiences, and students who have to face high expectations (whether from parents, teachers, or themselves) are at a greater risk. 

How can I help?

If you see a student you know showing even one of the symptoms mentioned above, let them know that you are available to help.

You can begin the conversation by referring to the behavioral changes you have noticed. Check if they have any experience of the other symptoms mentioned above. Gently ask if they have had suicidal thoughts. If they say yes, ask them how frequently they have these thoughts. Ask them if they have thought of specific methods (while making sure not to mention any methods yourself), and how they feel when these thoughts occur. This will help you assess the level of risk, and decide what kind of support to seek for them.

It is a misconception that asking someone whether they are contemplating suicide would drive them to attempt it. Experts say that when someone has suicidal thoughts and they are asked about them, they experience a sense of relief that someone is willing to listen to them and understand them.

It is important that as a gatekeeper, you offer them a non-judgmental listening. If you are a parent, teacher or close friend, you might, with the best of intentions, respond dismissively or tell them not to think about suicide. Instead, tell them you are ready to listen to them and you would like to understand what they are going through.

If the person is in the low-risk category (with thought of suicide being rare), be available and monitor their behavior. Let them know that you are willing to listen to them if required.

If they are in the moderate to high-risk category (they are thinking of suicide, or have thought about how to attempt it), convey your appreciation to the person for taking the courage to tell you about their challenges. If the person you have spoken to says that they have already acquired the means to attempt suicide, ask them if they would like to hand it over to you. Work with them to arrive at strategies they can adopt the next time they have these distressing thoughts – whether it is calling you to share their anxiety, or going for a run.

Inform their parents and ask them to go to a mental health professional as soon as possible; this could be a school counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. If the parents are concerned about approaching a mental health professional, encourage them to visit their General Physician instead. The GP may be able to offer some support or refer them to an expert who can. Remember, your intervention can help save a life.