Help Students Cope With Death by Suicide

Communicator
September 2017, Volume 41, Issue 1

September is World Suicide Prevention Month. School staff and educators face unique issues and challenges when supporting students who are grieving a death by suicide. Survivors of suicide experience strong feelings which may limit their ability to put into words, the many mixed feelings they experience. A sensitive understanding of their needs is essential when a member of the school community has died in this way.

Here are three things every education professional should know to help student’s better cope after experiencing a death by suicide.

1. It’s good to talk. Talking about suicide will not make people who wouldn’t have otherwise thought of harming themselves seriously consider doing so. It is important to offer students as well as staff, opportunities to talk about their thoughts, feelings, and responses. Use the phrase “death by suicide.”  The phrase shows students you are prepared to talk honestly with them. Prior to doing so, ensure facts are verified and that the family has given permission to share information about the death. Never refer to a “successful suicide.”

 

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2. Focus on the person, not the death. In conversations with students, it’s useful to bring more focus to remembering what made the person who died special, and less to the details of the death. Acknowledge that strong feelings among survivors are common and natural. Encourage students to talk with a parent or other trusted adult if they are considering harming themselves, or if they think someone they know might be thinking about suicide.

Identify professionals such as school counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers who students can talk to if they wish. Be sure that needed mental health supports are available over the days and months following the death.

3. Keep memorialization informal and personal. Formal recognition or a large memorial event can add a glamorous or romantic quality to the death. This, in turn, might make suicide seem more attractive to other students. Those at increased risk include students experiencing depression, substance abuse, or other mental health concerns–engaged in attention-seeking, or having experienced the loss of a family member or friend by suicide.   Ideally, all student deaths within the school will be handled the same way.

It’s important not to invite anonymous comments about the deceased on websites or posters. Negative comments may appear. Some people may look to blame the deceased or others for the death. In addition, if a student anonymously expresses an intention of self-harm, there is no way to follow up or provide assistance.

You can find additional guidance at the Coalition to Support Grieving Students at www.grievingstudents.org (our organization is a member). Find sample scripts for discussing suicide with students of different developmental levels, videos of education professionals who have had to cope with a suicide in their school, and guidance to help prevent additional or cluster suicides.

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