A suicide in a school community is devastating to staff, students, and families. Some individuals may be unable to cope and the community as a whole may struggle with how to respond. In a state of shock, school administrators may be uncertain of what steps to take.

This toolkit provides practical information to schools for after a student has died by suicide.

What to do immediately following a suicide

  1. Contact the family of the student who died.
    • Offer condolences on behalf of the school community.
    • Determine if parents of the deceased student want the suicide disclosed.
    • Recommend that the cause of death (suicide) be acknowledged, without releasing specific details: rumours and stories about the death will dissipate in light of accurate information and disclosing the suicide may also allow everyone impacted to fully grieve.
    • Maintain a culturally sensitive approach; being aware of the background of the family of the deceased student and their beliefs and attitudes toward suicide will help foster open conversation (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention [AFSP] & Suicide Prevention Resource Center [SPRC], 2018).
  2. Inform school staff, school district administration and board. See Appendix for items to consider when developing a communications plan.
  3. Inform all school families that there has been a student death with an official communication from the principal including:
    • Recognition of the death as a suicide (if permission is given by the deceased student’s parents);
    • Reassurance that the school is returning to a normal routine;
    • Assurance that counselling services will be made available for the school community and that more information on how to access these services will follow (Centre for Suicide Prevention, 2014; AFSP & SPRC, 2018).
  4. Endeavour to operate the school as normally as possible – maintaining a stable environment is key.
  5. Consult any existing school policies or protocols re: crisis management, student deaths, suicide deaths and work with your district to implement them. See Appendix for a sample crisis management plan.

In the days following the suicide

Grief management

Ensuring people receive the proper care after a suicide is critical. Those who have been exposed to suicide are at greater risk of suicide themselves. In order to help people affected by the suicide work through their grief:

  • Arrange for group-based grief and loss counselling and make these services available to the entire school community. Clearly communicate session availability to students, staff, and the families of all students, including the deceased student (Erbacher et al., 2015; AFSP & SPRC, 2018; Centre for Suicide Prevention, 2014; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012).
  • Immediately identify students at risk of suicide (see warning signs) and monitor them; a suicide death can be triggering (Erbacher et al., 2015).
  • Meet with the deceased student’s closest friends and emphasize to them that they are not responsible for the student’s death (Brock, 2002; Erbacher et al., 2015).

Postvention is key to prevention!

Friends walking down street

Preventing suicide contagion

Suicide contagion is when multiple suicides occur in a short period of time or defined location. Contagion is rare, but adolescents are more vulnerable to it than any other age group. Those who may be at risk include:

  • Close friends of the person who died;
  • Witnesses of the death;
  • Students who had contact with the person shortly before they died;
  • Those who are already experiencing thoughts of suicide; and
  • Those who have experienced suicide loss in the past.

Typical suicide grief responses

  • Shock and numbness
  • Profound sadness
  • Anger and blame
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Relief
  • Denial

(Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, 2018)

young man crying

More responses can be found in Normal Reactions to Suicide Loss by the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Grief for death is an expected and typical response in any context. Grief toward a death by suicide, however, can be a far more intense and complex experience. Family members and those close to the deceased student may be at risk for suicide themselves; studies show them to be at increased risk for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), complicated grief, and suicidal ideation.

Research indicates that up to 135 people are impacted by a given suicide, ranging from the more seriously affected to those more simply exposed (they knew the person) (Cerel et al., 2018).

Therefore, in work or school settings, it is critical to make counselling opportunities available for those affected (Erbacher et al., 2015; Carson J. Spencer Foundation et al., 2013).

Memorialization

Memorialization involves a sensitive balancing act of both honouring the deceased student and not promoting suicide, thereby protecting the people currently at risk. Here are some recommended practices:

  • Respond to grief in a way that considers other students’ vulnerabilities as a result of the suicide;
  • Treat all deaths the same way so as not to glamourize or romanticize a suicide death;
  • Plan temporary grieving opportunities;
  • Recommend funeral services be held outside of school hours so everyone can attend;
  • Discourage official, school-wide memorials as they have the potential to glamourize the death; and
  • Construct any physical memorial off school grounds (Centre for Suicide Prevention, 2004; AFSP & SPRC, 2018; Kerr et al., 2010).

Warning signs of people at risk

People who are suicidal typically exhibit warning signs. At school, these may be identified as:

  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Self-harm
  • Talk of being a burden to others
  • Changes in behaviour
  • Withdrawal from social media activity

(AFSP & SPRC, 2018)

Person walking down dark street

Some warning signs require more immediate action than others. If someone is exhibiting the following warning signs, call 9-1-1:

  • Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself or already having a plan (American Association of Suicidology, 2017)

In the weeks following the suicide

Suicide awareness education

  • Discuss mental illness and its connection to suicide with students: not all people who consider suicide have a mental illness, anyone can be at risk of suicide.
  • Outline typical behaviours or ‘warning signs’ of suicide risk to students so they are more aware.
  • Offer mental health information sessions for parents to inform them of suicide ‘warning signs’ and protective and risk factors.
  • Use sensitive language (non-sensational, non-judgmental) to describe suicide and suicidal behaviour. See the Appendix for language guidelines.
  • Connect students who are still struggling to community mental health supports.

teacher in classroom

Resources

After a suicide: A toolkit for schools
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Canadian Mental Heath Association (CMHA)
CMHA has regional and provincial offices across Canada and offers mental health resources and services.

Kids Help Phone
Kids Help Phone is anonymous, confidential phone and web counselling, available 24/7 for youth ages 20 and younger.
Phone: 1 (800) 668-6868

Preventing suicide: A toolkit for high schools
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services

Workshops
Centre for Suicide Prevention
Train school staff and administration in suicide prevention workshops to help inform and prepare them to identify a student at risk of suicide and effectively intervene with them.

Appendix

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s (SPRC) After a suicide: A toolkit for schools (2nd ed.)

AFSP and SPRC’s After a suicide: A toolkit for schools (2nd ed.) is an invaluable resource and can be consulted for a more information.

Crisis management response

A school’s coordinated crisis response plan needs to include an action plan for after a suicide.

Here are some essential actions to include:

  • Ensure some school staff are trained in suicide intervention;
  • Consult and implement communications plan;
  • Identify crisis response team members (including teachers and trained health professionals);
  • Assign roles to crisis team members so they can manage all aspects of the crisis response;
  • Organize a planning meeting for the crisis team and ensure everyone is aware of their role;
  • Establish where to access counselling support and how it can be implemented (including where in the school counsellors will meet with people)

More information on crisis management response can be found starting on page 4 of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s After a suicide: A toolkit for schools (2nd ed.).

Communications Plan

  1. Contact the family of the student who died.
    • Offer condolences on behalf of the school community.
    • Determine if parents of the deceased want the suicide disclosed.
    • Recommend that the cause of death be acknowledged: rumours and stories about the death will dissipate in light of accurate information and disclosing the cause of death may also allow everyone impacted to fully grieve.
    • Maintain a culturally sensitive approach; being aware of the background of the family of the deceased and their beliefs and attitudes toward suicide will help foster open conversation (AFSP & SPRC, 2018).
  2. Inform school staff, school district administration and board.
  3. Designate a school representative to respond to all media requests and prepare an appropriate media message using Safe Language Guidelines. A sample media statement can be found starting on page 57 of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s After a suicide: A toolkit for schools (2nd ed.).
  4. Inform all school families that there has been a student death with an official communication from the principal including:
  5. After arranging for grief and loss counselling for the entire school community, communicate the availability of these services to students, staff, and the families of all children, including the deceased.
  6. Identify students who may be at risk, like those already at-risk of suicide and the deceased’s closest friends to Meet with the deceased’s closest friends and emphasize to them that they are not responsible for the student’s death (Brock, 2002; Erbacher et al., 2015)

Social media

Social media is the preferred means of communication among young people. In the event of a school suicide, social media will most certainly be used to convey news of the tragedy. If used effectively, these media can also be important tools to promote suicide prevention-oriented messaging.

  • Establish social media protocols and procedures to foster the sharing of accurate and beneficial information regarding the death;
  • Use social media to offer support to students who may be struggling to cope;
  • Monitor websites to promote safe and positive messages;
  • Communicate with parents and community members through social media where appropriate; and
  • Avoid glamourizing the death on social media memorial pages (AFSP & SPRC, 2018; Erbacher et al., 2015).

More information about how to properly use social media can be found starting on page 32 of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s After a suicide: A toolkit for schools (2nd ed.).

Safe Language Guidelines

Much of the traditional language surrounding suicide has negative connotations and unintentionally perpetuates stigma as a result. Phrases such as “committed suicide” (with its overtones of criminality) or “successful suicide”, “completed suicide”, or “failed suicide attempt” are some examples (Sommer-Rothenburg, 1998). More neutral, compassionate words and phrases can be used such as “died by suicide” or “suicide attempt” or “attempted suicide”.

In addition, “person-first language” should always be used. For example, a person is not his or her disorder. Do not use “suicidal” or “mentally ill” or “suicide attempter”. Instead, use “someone experiencing suicidal behaviours” or, “someone who has attempted suicide” or “a person living with mental illness” (Disability Rights California, n.d.).

Do not mention the method of suicide and use neutral, non-sensationalized language to avoid suicide contagion caused by glamourizing the suicide or triggering thoughts of suicide in others (AFSP & SPRC, 2018; Erbacher et al., 2015).

References

American Association Suicidology. (2017). Know the warning signs of suicide. Retrieved from http://www.suicidology.org/resources/warning-signs

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention & Suicide Prevention Resource Center. (2018). After a suicide: A toolkit for schools (2nd ed.). Waltham, MA: Education Development Center. Retrieved from http://www.sprc.org/sites/default/files/resource-program/AfteraSuicideToolkitforSchools.pdf

Brock, S.E. (2002). School suicide postvention. In S.E. Brock, P.J. Lazarus, and S.R. Jimerson (Eds.), Best practices in school crisis prevention and intervention (pp. 553-576). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. (2018). Suicide grief: Normal reactions to suicide loss. Retrieved from https://suicideprevention.ca/coping-with-suicide-loss/suicide-grief/

Carson J. Spencer Foundation, Crisis Care Network and the American Association of Suicidology (2013). A manager’s guide to suicide postvention in the workplace: 10 action steps for dealing with the aftermath of suicide. Denver, CO: Carson J. Spencer Foundation.

Centre for Suicide Prevention. (2004). School memorials after suicide: Helpful or harmful? (2004). Alert 54.

Centre for Suicide Prevention. (2014). The 5 things we wish all teachers knew about: School suicide prevention programs. Retrieved from https://www.suicideinfo.ca/resource-type/Webinar/

Cerel, J., Brown, M., Maple, M., Singleton, M., van deVenne, J., Moore, M., & Flaherty, C. (2018). How many people are exposed to suicide? Not six. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. DOI: 10.1111/sltb.12450

Erbacher, T., Singer, J. & Poland, S. (2015). Suicide in schools: A practitioner’s guide to multi-level prevention, assessment, intervention and postvention. New York: Routledge.

Kerr, M., Brent, D., McKain, B. & McCommons, P. (2010). Postvention standards manual. A guide for a school’s response in the aftermath of sudden death. Retrieved from http://www.starcenter.pitt.edu/Files/PDF/Manuals/Postvention.pdf

Sommer-Rotenberg, D. (1998). Suicide and language. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 159(3), 239-240.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Preventing suicide: A toolkit for high schools. Retrieved from http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content//SMA12-4669/SMA12-4669.pdf