Too often, I hear stories about a school telling the student body “not to talk about it” which is the worst possible thing to say following a death of a student (or a teacher) by suicide. Not to mention, it’s not at all how a school should handle news of a suicide.
Suicide is a cause of death–a public health issue
Suicide is most often the result of mental illness which is a documented brain disease.
The kids know how someone died. And by trying to keep the cause under wraps, a school is further stigmatizing suicide and cheating the student body out of a valuable learning and healing opportunity. Furthermore, making it hush hush can make vulnerable individuals think they can’t reach out for help.
Teens want to talk about it. They are starved for answers, information and comfort from each other.
Schools have all kinds of disaster plans including drills for school shootings and this topic should be one of the potential disaster plans. Ask yourself, “What would we do if one of our students died by suicide?”
You should read through and have on hand, an evidence-based tool created by American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and Suicide Prevention Resource Center 1 (link below to this toolkit) on the steps to take in the event this tragedy happens at your school. There are email scripts based on information you get from the parents, what to say to students, how to handle the press, how to memorialize students and more.
The point is you want to handle this situation appropriately and in the best interest of your students.
People often think that talking about suicide “gives teens the idea.”2 A lot of parents think that, too. There is fear as it relates to suicide and now there is plenty of evidence on how to approach and treat the topic in a school setting.
Talk saves lives.
And there are four studies that have found healthy conversation on the topic encourages vulnerable individuals to seek help. And teenagers are most certainly a vulnerable population.
On at least two occasions, I’ve been told stories about how a death by suicide has been treated in terms of memorial at a school.
In one school in Florida, a mom wrote that the administrators refused to do a memorial for her daughter in the yearbook. They were, however, going to do one for a young man who died in an accident that same year. So they are memorializing one student. And shunning the death of another because it was a suicide.
How do you think that makes the parents feel? The families? The students that are suffering from this loss?
It’s just wrong.
Here in Richmond, a mom lost one of her twin boys to suicide. The school refused to do anything or even to have a discussion about it. Furthermore, they refused to memorialize the student. Fortunately, that wrong was remedied a year later under new administration and appropriate memorial was given.
Here’s the thing.
Suicide (and that goes for overdose, too) should be treated like any other cause of death.
Suicide is complicated in nature and kids often need additional support because they can get into self blame mode or worse, want to take their own life.
Conversation on the subject often encourages these individuals to self report that they are thinking about killing themselves. They are frightened by these thoughts. They are not sure where they are coming from or why. Leaving them to deal with them isolation and grief without conversation is far more likely to be dangerous than healthy, well-educated conversation on the subject.
- 1 After a Suicide, A Toolkit for Schools – A guide from AFSP for schools who have suffered a suicide of one of their students
- 2 Does asking about suicide and related behaviors induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence?
“Our findings suggest acknowledging and talking about suicide
may in fact reduce, rather than increase suicidal ideation, and
may lead to improvements in mental health in treatment-seeking
–Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information PMID:24998511- DOI:10.1017/S0033291714001299
2 thoughts on “How a school should handle a death by suicide”
Talking does save lives. We were brought up not to speak of family problems. In reality, we all are struggling with something. Well written, Anne Moss. Thanks.
We were brought up that way. Dirty laundry. Thank you Leigh