In the aftermath of a suicide, students and others in the school community may—not surprisingly—feel emotionally overwhelmed, which can disrupt the school’s ability to return to its primary function of educating students, and can increase the risk of prolonged stress responses and even suicide contagion. The following are strategies that schools can use to help students balance the timing and intensity of their emotional expression and restore the school’s ability to function effectively.
The term emotional regulation refers to a person’s ability to appropriately experience and express intense emotions such as grief and fear. 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 suicide. In addition, young people may not yet have learned how to recognize complex feelings or physical indicators of distress, such as stomach upset, restlessness, or insomnia. Moreover, adolescence marks a time of increased risk for difficulties with emotional regulation, given the intensification of emotional responses that come with puberty and the structural changes in the brain that occur during this developmental period.
It is therefore, important for schools to provide students with appropriate opportunities to express their emotions and identify strategies for managing them, so the school can continue its primary focus of education. It may also be useful for school staff to identify and reach out to families of students who are not coming to school.
When implementing these strategies, leadership will most likely be provided by the school counselor, school nurse, and/or community mental health partner, all of whom should be members of the school’s Crisis Response Team. However, all adults in the school community can help by modeling calm, caring, and thoughtful behavior.
Schedule Meetings with Students in Small Groups
It will likely be necessary to adjust the regular academic schedule in order to spend time with students to help address their emotional needs. It is preferable to reach out to students in a deliberate and timely way rather than to allow the emotional environment to escalate. It is also preferable to meet with students in small groups, which enables adults to identify those youth who appear in need of additional attention.
If possible, have counselors go into the classrooms to give students accurate information about suicide, the kinds of reactions that can be expected after hearing about a peer’s suicide death, and safe coping strategies to help them in the coming days and weeks.
Wherever possible, group meetings should follow a structured outline, keep to a time limit,
and provide each student with an opportunity to speak. The meetings should focus on helping students identify and express their feelings and discuss practical coping strategies (including appropriate ways to memorialize the loss) so they may return their focus to their regular routines and activities.
If the deceased student participated in sports, clubs, or other school activities, the first practice, game, rehearsal, or meeting after the death may be difficult for the other students. These events can provide further opportunities for the adults in the school community to help the students appropriately acknowledge the loss.
Help Students Identify and Express Their Emotions
Youth will vary widely in terms of emotional expression. Some may become openly emotional, others may be reluctant to talk at all, and still others may use humor. Acknowledge the breadth of feelings and diversity of experiences and emphasize the importance of being respectful
Some students may need help to identify emotions beyond simply sad, angry, or happy, and may need reassurance that a wide range of feelings and experiences are to be expected. They may also need to be reminded that emotions may be experienced as physical symptoms, including butterflies in the stomach, shortness of breath, insomnia, fatigue, or irritability. To facilitate this discussion, students may be asked:
What is your biggest concern about the immediate future? What would help you feel safer right now?
Practical Coping Strategies
Encourage students to think about specific things they can do when intense emotions such as worry or sadness begin to well up, including:
- simple relaxation and distraction skills, such as taking three deep slow breaths, counting to 10,
or picturing themselves in a favorite calm and relaxing place
- engaging in favorite activities or hobbies such as music, talking with a friend, reading, or going
to a movie
- thinking about how they’ve coped with difficulties in the past and reminding themselves that
they can use those same coping skills now
- writing a list of people they can turn to for support
- writing a list of things they’re looking forward to
- focusing on individual goals, such as returning to a shared class or spending time with
Often, youth will express guilt about having fun or thinking about other things. They may feel that they somehow need permission to engage in activities that will help them feel better and take their mind off the stressful situation.
Students should also be encouraged to think about how they want to remember their friend. Ideas range from writing a personal note to the family, to attending the memorial service, to doing something kind for another person in honor of their friend. Be sure to educate students about the school’s guidelines regarding memorialization. Acknowledging their need to express their feelings while helping them identify appropriate ways to do so can begin the process of returning their focus to their daily lives and responsibilities.
Reach Out to Parents
Parents may need guidance on Talking About Suicide with their children and how best to support them at this difficult time. They may also need reliable information relating to the document Facts About Mental Disorders and Suicide in Adolescents.
Anniversary of the Death
The anniversary of the death (and other significant dates, such as the deceased’s birthday) may
stir up emotions and can be an upsetting time for some students and staff. It is helpful to ➞anticipate this and provide an opportunity to acknowledge
the date, particularly with those students who were especially close to the student who died.