Suicides of students, staff members and others in the school community present growing challenges to students, counselors, psychologists, administrators, teachers, school-based police and others in the school community. These challenges are intensified when the suicide occurs on campus. We asked our colleague and expert on suicides and schools, Dr. Scott Poland, to share some insights and best practices on this topic.
Dealing With a Suicide Death on Campus:
Tips for Managing Emotionality
Dr. Scott Poland
Co-Director of the Suicide and Violence Office
Nova Southeastern University
I am very saddened to read several media stories documenting student suicides that have occurred on school grounds this school year. It will be sometime before we can determine if this is a new trend however, the majority of youth suicides have historically happened after school and at home. The literature stresses that often a family member is in the home at the time and could have possibly stopped the suicide had they noted warning signs. One has to wonder if the suicide victims who died at school really wanted to be stopped or if they were sending a deeper message about their view of school by where they choose to end their life. A suicide death at school is very traumatic and challenging to manage and the following suggestions are offered for maximizing support and processing efforts in effectively dealing with such a crisis:
- Immediately notify police and verify the facts surrounding the death and convene the campus crisis team. Contact the central administration to obtain support and guidance.
- Contact the victim’s family and offer assistance. Check to see if the victim had siblings who attend your schools and offer them support and isolate them from the rest of the student body for reuniting with their family.
- Recognize that schools have historically often underestimated the magnitude and impact of the crisis and the research suggests that approximately 20% of those exposed to a tragedy will experience significant problems.
- Assist the faculty first so that they will be ready to help the students.
- Identify those students most likely to be affected. It is expected that close friends of the deceased and those known to be previously suicidal even without having a close relationship with the victim will be the most affected
- The typical reactions that students have to a tragedy are the following: sleeping problems and nightmares, worries about the future, regression both behaviorally and academically. Suicidal thoughts will be increased after a suicide as exposure to suicide is a risk factor.
- Be truthful and use developmentally appropriate language with students.
- Do not underestimate the impact of the tragedy. Review the following:
- How well known was the deceased? There will be more emotionality following the death of popular and beloved student.
- What was the cause of death? Deaths by homicide, accident and suicide are sudden and unexpected, and a higher level of emotionality can be expected.
- Where did the death occur? Deaths occurring on campuses are especially traumatic for both students and staff.
- Are there prior tragedies that have affected the school community? Issues and emotions from previous losses will likely surface, further complicating the processing efforts.
- If verification of death comes after the school day has ended or during the weekend, the school faculty calling tree should be utilized to notify the staff and to allow them the following:
- Time to process the information and receive support from their friends and significant others.
- Additional time to deal with their own personal issues regarding crisis and loss if necessary, thereby being prepared to assist their students when school resumes.
- To feel included in the processing rather than excluded and even angry when not given prior notification of the tragedy.
- Advance notification of a faculty meeting scheduled for the purpose of announcing updates, details and specific plans for the day.
- If school is in session when you verify facts surrounding the tragedy, the following notification methods are recommended:
- Memos delivered to all classrooms that contain the facts of the tragedy and specific recommendations or a script for teachers explaining what to say to students.
- Carefully worded and previously rehearsed public announcements to faculty and students.
- Utilize the minute of silence that is currently being observed in some schools each day to encourage students to think about the deceased’s family.
- If the death was a suicide, carefully review postvention guidelines from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention entitled: After a Suicide: Toolkit for schools afsp.org
- Suicide postvention best practices recommend telling staff and students the truth about cause of death without giving explicit details. Make no attempt to explain why he/she died but focus instead on helping students with grief resolution, shock, confusion, anger and to learn the warning signs of suicide. Small group or classroom discussions are recommended not a large school assembly.
- Review the response to the crisis for lessons learned for prevention and intervention.
- Protect staff and students from the media. Set limits for media personnel but provide them with factual information while protecting the privacy of the victim’s family. The media has a job to do and maintaining good relations with them could serve to create an opportunity for promoting positive messages to the community. Be proactive and prepare a letter to be sent home with all students about the tragedy and there are sample letters in the Toolkit referenced in point # 7.
- Suicide deaths at school certainly warrants a lock down situation but avoid sending students home since the school is a major source of comfort and assistance for most students, consider keeping it open on evenings and weekends as needed to provide support for staff and students.
- Students or staff who were physically and directly exposed to the trauma (i.e., witness to the death or viewed the body) will need more extensive assistance, preferably separate from staff and students who were not physically exposed.
- Provide classroom interventions, having mental health professionals such as counselors and psychologists leading discussions in classrooms as the first intervention. The majority of students will receive all the help they need in the classroom.
- Recognize that the tragedy becomes the curriculum subject in logical classes based on the questions outlined in point #4 above.
- Provide students the opportunity to express emotions through talking, writing, music, artwork, and ceremonies.
- Individual and group counseling should be offered to students who need additional support beyond what was provided in the classroom interventions.
- Do not hesitate to contact parents of students about whom you are concerned. Make referral for services for the most affected students.
- Recognizing that you and your staff are personally affected by the tragedy, utilizing objective guidance and support from local as well as state and national resources could be beneficial, depending on the severity of the tragedy.
- Faculty and students in the weeks and months following the tragedy will be looking for the “gift of hope”, or ways to make the world a better place through prevention activities and projects.
- Plan memorials very carefully, proceed slowly, and involve a committee in the memorial decision making process. There has been much debate about the appropriateness of memorials at school especially if the death was by suicide but the new guidelines referenced above # 7, reflect a goal to treat all deaths the same. Memorials that focus on the living in memory of the victim are always preferred over permanent markers and plaques.
- Since the effects of a tragedy persist for a long time, make plans to provide follow-up and ongoing support, especially to siblings and close friends of the deceased on the anniversary date of the tragedy. Adolescents who have experienced a prior loss will be more at risk for depression, substance abuse, and reckless behavior and suicide.
- Do not underestimate your own and your staff’s processing and support requirements. Take time to identify your own coping skills as well as sources of comfort and strength in your lives. Provide support to your crisis team.
Dr. Scott Poland is Co-Director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University. He is the author or co-author of five books and a number of chapters and articles on school/crisis and safety. His newest co-authored book, Suicide in schools was published by Routledge in 2015. He previously worked as the Director of Psychological services for the third largest school district in Texas for 24 years and is a frequent contributor to www.schoolsafety.org