When the Topic of Suicide Comes Up in Small Group
Fun fact: Before I started working in ministry, I was a middle school health teacher in the public school system. And while I could spend the next hour telling you funny, crazy, and even sad anecdotes about my experiences in those years, I’ll settle for just this one.
Often, we’d have schoolwide drills. Fire drills, tornado drills, active shooter drills—you name it, we practiced it. The purpose of these drills of course was to make sure every teacher, student, and administrator knew what to do to stay safe should any of these situations actually arise. And even though the drills were always ill timed (like at the beginning of a test, or in the middle of a review game, or when it was snowing outside), as a teacher, I knew they were important. Even though many of my students misbehaved, zoned out, or joked around during our drills every year, I knew that what we were doing mattered. Because not only was it planting seeds for them to know what to do in case of an emergency, it was preparing me—the adult entrusted with their lives—for the same thing. To care for them in an emergency.
And honestly, I think the same is true when it comes to navigating life-altering conversations with teenagers. When a student chooses to open up with you and be vulnerable about what they’re really feeling inside, we as Small Group Leaders need to be prepared to take the needed and necessary steps to keep the hearts and lives of those teenagers we’ve been entrusted with safe.
As your prepare to navigate the conversation of suicide with your students, here are five suggestions for you as a SGL to take prior to the conversation to make sure you know what to do to for your students who need help.
1. PREPARE YOURSELF. Ask the Ministry Leader if you could listen to the message ahead of time so that you can think through some of the content prior to your time with your students. Take extra time to look over the Small Group Guide and think about what will (or will not!) work for your specific group of students. Spend time in any additional resources, like reading blogs or listening to podcasts that the ministry leader sends you in preparation. Why all this work? Because the way you respond to students when it comes to a topic as sensitive as suicide will dictate to your students if you’re a safe place for them or not. So be ready! You want to be a safe place! So spend time preparing and praying to make sure you’re ready to provide that. And if you’re not—if you’re working through your own issues of intrusive or unhealthy thoughts—talk to your ministry leader about getting help for both you and your Small Group going into this week.
2. KEEP PARENTS IN THE LOOP. Even though Ministry Leaders will most likely send an email or share a post on social media to notify parents that you will be talking about suicide at youth group that week, I promise you that you can’t over communicate enough to parents about this specific topic. Go the extra mile as their Small Group Leader and shoot a quick text or email to the parents of your students. Let them know what you’ll be talking about in the coming week and ask for their prayers as you lead. You may even want to send them the Small Group Guide so that they can get an idea of the questions you’ll be asking. And then, follow up! Thank them for praying for your conversation and your students. Let them know you’re proud of how their students navigated such a sensitive topic. It not only will inform them, but it will open the channel of communication up between you and the parents.
3. TOUCH BASE WITH STUDENTS WHO NEED A HEADS UP. You know your students better than anyone. You’re the one who sits with them, week in and week out. You’re walking alongside them through whatever life has thrown at them, and that means you have insight that even your Ministry Leader may not have. Think about students in your Small Group who may struggle with a topic like suicide. Maybe you know someone in your group has dealt with their issue in their own life or in the life of someone close to them. A conversation like this one could trigger a lot of emotions, so let that student know ahead of time that the conversation is coming. This will give them the chance to mentally prepare and maybe even make the decision to sit that week out or meet with you one-on-one instead.
4. HAVE A PLAN IN PLACE. Just like those safety drills we ran at school, preparation is key. If there’s a plan in place ahead of time, you’re more prepared to handle it should the need ever arise. Pray about what you’re going to say to a student if they open up to you about having suicidal thoughts. Think about how you want to navigate the conversation to a more private space should it come up in the middle of your Small Group. And make sure you know exactly who you’re going to talk to or get involved if your student shares that they or someone they know is thinking about hurting themselves. This is a hard and emotional conversation to have, both for you and your students. That’s why planning ahead will help you act with calm, concern, and care should the conversation come up.
5. SET THE EXPECTATIONS FROM THE BEGINNING. One of the scariest parts of a conversation like this for a student is the fear that they’ll be found out. While they may open up to you, they may beg and plead that what they tell you remain a secret from their parents, peers, or anyone else. But as adults, you and I both know that with a subject like suicide, this can’t always be the case. Some things have to be shared with others for the health and safety of your students. So to help ease their minds about this, set the expectations from the start. Before your group even begins, make sure your circle knows that it’s a safe place to share. But also let them know that sometimes there are conversations that require you to bring in others, like another adult, a counselor, a Ministry Leader, or even a parent. This way, should the need arise to bring someone else into the conversation with a student, it won’t take them off guard.
Preparing to talk to teenagers about a sensitive topic like suicide can be nerve wracking. But remember, hopefully this is only a drill. Hopefully, all the planning and preparation and prayer you put into this conversation will serve to lay the foundation for your students should they ever need it. And know this: As you step in to lead your few through this topic, you’re being prayed for every step of the way.