“Stigma is still there surrounding suicide, and people take a step back as opposed to reaching out to the family or the child to help them through the process. I think that adds a layer of loneliness or difficulty to the person who’s dealing with that grief.” (School Guidance Counselor)
This module addresses the unique challenges for education professionals who are supporting students grieving a death by suicide. Suicide carries a stigma in our society and often leaves survivors with strong feelings of guilt, shame, regret, and anger. Effective and appropriate communication is important to promote the adjustment of survivors and to reduce the potential risk of others engaging in self-harm or attempting suicide.
School staff face unique challenges when supporting students grieving a death by suicide. Many students who knew the student who died experience strong emotions and confusing thoughts. An increased risk of self-harm or suicidal thoughts or behaviors may occur in vulnerable students.
Important points for education professionals to know:
- It’s good to talk. Offer students opportunities to talk about their thoughts and feelings. Talking about suicide will not make people who wouldn’t have otherwise thought of harming themselves consider doing so. Use the phrase “death by suicide” to show students you are prepared to talk honestly with them.
- Focus on the person, not the death. Bring focus to what made the person who died special. Give less emphasis to 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 about their reactions to the death. Urge them to reach out if they are considering harming themselves. Explain that if someone they know is talking about suicide, they should not keep that information secret. Identify professionals such as school counselors, nurses, psychologists, or social workers who are available to talk with students and share information about the 988 crisis hotline, which is available at any time for calls, texts or chats.
- Emphasize that suicide is not a logical “choice.” It is usually the result of underlying depression or other mental health problems, or related to alcohol or other substance abuse. While it is not unusual for people to sometimes think about suicide, these thoughts usually recede as people clearly think through their situation. When thoughts of suicide persist, it is important that the person seek support from a professional.
- Keep memorialization informal and personal. A large memorial event can add a glamorous quality to the death. This might make suicide seem more attractive to vulnerable students or students in need of attention.
- In situations where there are multiple suicides, expert assistance can help schools support students and staff as well as develop plans to protect the safety of all students. The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement can offer guidance or make referrals.