Suicide and Students with High-Incidence Disabilities: What Special Educators Need to Know

By Wachter, Carrie A.; Bouck, Emily C. | Teaching Exceptional Children, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Suicide and Students with High-Incidence Disabilities: What Special Educators Need to Know


Wachter, Carrie A., Bouck, Emily C., Teaching Exceptional Children


"Within a typical high school classroom, it is likely that three students (one boy and two girls) have made a suicide attempt in the past year" [American Association of Suicidology, 2003, p. 3). How many of your students are contemplating suicide? How do you know, and what do you do if you suspect that one of your students may attempt suicide?

Suicide is the third leading cause of death in individuals ages 10 to 24 (National Institute of Mental Health, 2003). Researchers approximate that 17% to 29% of secondary school students seriously consider suicide and 8% attempt suicide (Brener, Krug, & Simon, 2000; Centers for Disease Control, 2006). Students diagnosed with a disability may be at an even higher level of risk than their general education peers (see Bender, Rosenkrans, & Crane, 1999; McBride & Seigel, 1997). Clearly, knowing how to identify and how to access assistance for students considering suicide is important for those who work with all students.

Although we as educators do not want our students to consider suicide as an option, they sometimes do. The purpose of this article is threefold:

* To discuss suicide as it pertains to students diagnosed with high incidence disabilities.

* To help special education teachers identify students at risk for suicide.

* To identify how special educators can help intervene when a student is considering suicide.

Identification and intervention practices are illustrated through a case study of a hypothetical student, Marcia, and her teacher, Sarah.

Suicido: Knowing What We Don't Want to Know

Recognizing students at risk of suicide is a vital skill for educators who work with students with disabilities. Although all students could consider suicide, research indicates that students with a disability have higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts than their general education peers (e.g., Bender et al., 1999; Bender & Wall, 1994; Huntington & Bender, 1993; Kerkhof, 1994; McBride & Seigel, 1997) and, thus, may be at increased risk. One risk factor for suicide is having a diagnosed disability, including learning disabilities (e.g., McBride & Seigel). A second risk factor, a lack of social support [Patterson, Dohn, Bird, & Patterson, 1983), is particularly relevant to special educators because students with a disability often have fewer school social supports and face social isolation (Heiman & Margalit, 1998; Pavri & Luftig, 2000). In addition, research suggests that students with a disability might be more susceptible to depression, another risk factor for suicide (e.g., Allan, Kashani, Dahlmeier, Beck, & Reid, 1998; Hamrick, Goldman, Sapp, & Kohler, 2004). In fact, Hamrick et al. estimated that approximately 50% of students who are eligible for special education services could also be diagnosed as depressed, and Maag and Reid (2006) found higher depression scores among students with a learning disability than students without a learning disability.

Research has, in part, validated the presumption that students with a disability are more susceptible to suicidal thoughts and behavior. A positive relationship seems to exist among emotional and/or behavior disorders (EBD), suicidal ideation and suicide attempts (Fleischmann, Bertolote, Belfer, & Beautrais, 2005; Hamrick et al., 2004), and adolescent females with high-incidence disabilities (particularly EBD) think more about suicide and make more suicide attempts than their peers without a disability (Miller, 1994). Researchers who analyzed the handwriting, spelling, grammar, and syntax of suicide notes concluded that a high percentage of students who committed suicide had a disability, particularly a learning disability (McBride & Seigel, 1997). In another study, 50% of teens under the age of 15 who completed suicide in Los Angeles were diagnosed as having a learning disability (Peck, 1985). Because a demonstrated relationship exists between high incidence disabilities and suicide, teachers of students with a disability need to know how to recognize students at risk for suicide and how to intervene appropriately in these cases. …

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