Bright Idea: A Runaway and Homeless Youth Program Makes Suicide Prevention a Priority

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Suicide is the third leading cause of death among U.S. 15- to 19-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in Iowa, it’s an even bigger problem, killing more young people than anything else, except traffic accidents. To combat this epidemic, an Iowa Runaway and Homeless Youth Program grantee has made suicide prevention one of its highest priorities – right up there with giving youth a place to stay.

All youth-shelter staff at Foundation 2, in Cedar Rapids, are certified through the internationally-recognized evidence-based training program Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, known as ASIST. The two-day training, a sort of CPR for suicide prevention, has given staff the skills they need to help homeless youth work through their suicidal thoughts and stay safe, says Stephanie Hamer, who coordinates the organization’s youth and family services. “It taught staff how to help youth develop coping skills and identify go-to people – particular staff they feel comfortable recognizing as their support person for each shift,” she says.

Hamer spoke with us about the other steps Foundation 2 has taken to combine suicide prevention with shelter services for runaway and homeless youth, and what other organizations can learn from their approach.

Know the signs and how to react. A few signs that a youth may be suicidal, Hamer says, are if he or she gives stuff away or makes a plan to commit suicide and tells others about it. Even happiness may be cause for concern if the young person is happy about dying.

Youth workers should act swiftly, but at the same time, they shouldn’t rush to a conclusion, Hamer says. “It takes time to assess these observations and know how to respond,” she says. Depending on what stage of the suicidal spectrum a young person is in, he or she may need to be committed to the hospital or may simply need some caring attention in a safe space.

Hamer cautions that not all young people who harm themselves are suicidal. “Many people mistakenly believe that cutting is always a form of suicidal behavior, but that’s not necessarily true,” she says. No matter what the reason for the self-harm, though, youth workers should be sensitive. “Youth often just want to be listened to and be given a space where their thoughts and feelings can be shared, and where they are given the opportunity to make a contract to stay safe,” she says.

Create a “therapeutic environment.” “Most youth shelters are noisy, chaotic places,” says Hamer. A therapeutic environment, on the other hand, is a quiet, private, welcoming space. Hamer advises agencies to create a space in the building that is away from noise and people, where youth can go when they need to get away. If space is too limited to designate a private space, agencies may strive to encourage calm and quiet throughout the shelter.  Some helpful tips on how to make youth shelters more therapeutic for youth suffering from traumatic experiences, including suicidal thoughts, can be found in the NCFY article “The Case of Youth on Fire: A Trauma-Informed Transformation.”

Include suicide safety in organizational policies. Make sure your organization’s standard operating procedures include strategies to identify risk factors for suicide and prevent young people from harming themselves, Hamer says. For example:

  • Have staff on watch both inside and outside the building.
  • Have staff conduct routine room searches for items youth might use to hurt themselves.
  • Have the overnight staff check on all youth at the shelter every 15 minutes to ensure that every young person remains safe all night.

Related NCFY articles:

Asking: 'What’s Happened to You?' A Focus on Trauma-informed Care
Connectedness Is Key to Preventing Suicide Among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth
Red Flags for Suicide

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