After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools includes an overview of key considerations, general guidelines for action, do’s and don’ts, templates, and sample materials, all in an easily accessible format applicable to diverse populations and communities. Principles that have guided the development of the toolkit include the following:
- Schools should strive to treat all student deaths in the same way. Having one approach for a student who dies of cancer (for example) and another for a student who dies by suicide reinforces the unfortunate stigma that still surrounds suicide and may be deeply and unfairly painful to the deceased student’s family and close friends.
- At the same time, schools should be aware that adolescents are vulnerable to the risk of suicide contagion. It is important not to inadvertently simplify, glamorize, or romanticize the student or his/her death.
- Schools should emphasize that the student who died by suicide was likely struggling with a mental disorder, such as depression or anxiety, that can cause substantial psychological pain but may not have been apparent to others (or that may have shown as behavior problems or substance abuse).
- Help is available for any student who may be struggling with mental health issues or suicidal feelings.
Specific areas addressed in the toolkit are listed below:
A suicide death in a school community requires implementing a coordinated crisis response to assist staff, students, and families who are impacted by the death and to restore an environment focused on education. Whether or not there is a Crisis Response Plan already in place, the toolkit contains information that can be used to initiate a coordinated response once the basic facts about the death have been obtained. Included are a Team Leader’s Checklist (who does what), talking points for use with students, staff, parents, and the media; sample handouts; meeting guidelines; and links to additional resources.
Helping Students Cope
Most adolescents have mastered basic skills that allow them to handle strong emotions encountered day to day, but these skills may be challenged in the face of a school suicide. Moreover, adolescence marks a time of increased risk for difficulties with emotional regulation, given the intensification of responses that come with puberty and the structural changes in
the brain that occur during this developmental period. Schools should provide students with appropriate opportunities to express their emotions and identify strategies for managing them, so that the school can return to its primary focus of education.
Working with the Community
Because schools exist within the context of a larger community, it is important that in the aftermath of a suicide (or other death) the school administrative team establish and maintain open lines of communication with community partners such as the coroner/medical examiner, police department, mayor’s office, funeral director, clergy, and mental health professionals. Even in those realms where the school may have limited authority (such as the funeral), a collaborative approach allows for the sharing of important information and coordination of strategies. A coordinated approach can be especially critical when the suicide receives a great deal of media coverage and when the community is looking to the school for guidance, support, answers, and leadership.
School communities often wish to memorialize a student who has died, reflecting a basic human desire to remember those we have lost. It can be challenging for schools to strike a comfortable balance between compassionately meeting the needs of distraught students while preserving the ability of the school to fulfill its primary purpose of education. In the case of suicide, schools must also consider how to appropriately memorialize the student who has died without risking suicide contagion among those surviving students who may themselves be at risk. It is very important that schools strive to treat all deaths in the same way.
Social media such as texting, Facebook, and Twitter are rapidly becoming the primary means of communication for people of all ages, especially youth. While these communications generally take place outside of school (and may therefore fall outside of the school’s control or jurisdiction), they can nevertheless be utilized as part of the school’s response after a student’s suicide. By working in partnership with key students to identify and monitor the relevant social networking sites, schools can strategically use social media to share prevention-oriented safe messaging, offer support to students who may be struggling to cope, and identify and respond to students who could be at risk themselves.
Contagion is the process by which one suicide may contribute to another. In fact, in some cases suicide(s) can even follow the death of a student from other causes, such as an accident. Although contagion is comparatively rare (accounting for between 1 percent and 5 percent
of all suicide deaths annually), adolescents appear to be more susceptible to imitative suicide than adults, largely because they may identify more readily with the behavior and qualities
of their peers. If there appears to be contagion, school administrators should consider taking additional steps beyond the basic crisis response, including stepping up efforts to identify other students who may be at heightened risk of suicide, collaborating with community partners in a coordinated suicide prevention effort, and possibly bringing in outside experts.
Bringing in Outside Help
School crisis team members should remain mindful of their own limitations and consider bringing in trained trauma responders from other school districts or local mental health centers to help them as needed.
In the ensuing months, schools may wish to consider implementing suicide awareness programs ➞to educate teachers, other school personnel, and students themselves about the causes of suicidal behavior in young people and to identify those who may be at risk.