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School Officials Often React Poorly to Student Suicides, Experts Say
When a teenager commits suicide, schools usually become the nexus of information and counseling for the affected community.
However, in responding after a student's suicide, many school officials actually do or say things that send the wrong messages to students and may even make copycat suicides more likely, according to Paul Granello and Darcy Haag Granello, co-authors of "Suicide, Self-Injury and Violence in the Schools."
While school administrators operate under the best of intentions when reacting to a student's suicide, the best course of action is actually "counterintuitive to our cultural norms," say the authors.
"We naturally want to have ceremonies and memorials, flowers at the fence and burning candles," Paul Granello says in a news release. "But when you do this in the case of a suicide, it sends the wrong message to troubled youth who might also be contemplating suicide."
This outpouring of grief could be seen as glorifying the person who completed suicide, which may cause other teens to think they want all that attention, he says. For this reason, schools should also avoid holding memorials or cancelling classes, and should only hold discussions about mental health or suicide in small classroom groups, not large assemblies.
Adults can also send the wrong message when they talk about a suicide; for example, when they say the student killed himself to "end the pain."
"What a dangerous message that is for young people," Darcy Granello says. "It tells them that suicide is the way to end pain. But suicide is never that simple. There is never a direct line from some bad things happening to someone to a choice to complete suicide."
Adults should instead convey to students that "suicide only transfers the pain from the person who killed him or herself to a whole community who is now in pain," she says.
School officials should also refrain from discussing specific details of the suicide, Paul Granello says.
"Instead of focusing on the suicide itself, focus on what help if available and how people are responding to the grief. The focus should be on the community response," he says.
But adults shouldn't be afraid to talk to teens about suicide, or even ask troubled students if they are thinking about suicide, according to Darcy Granello.
"There's a lot of research that shows that talking about suicide appropriately actually reduces the risk -– it doesn't increase it," she concludes.
Here are some other steps schools should take after the suicide of a student:
- Compile a list of students who may be at risk for suicide and remind staff about the risk factors and warning signs.
- Contact community support services, such as local mental health agencies, other school counselors, community crisis hotline agencies and clergy members.
- Arrange a meeting with parents.
- Provide them with warning signs for adolescents who may be suicidal.
- Provide information about supportive services available to students at the school and in the community.
- Provide information about how to respond to students' questions about suicide.
- Meet with students in small groups in the classroom.
- Make sure teachers announce the death of the student during their first class of the day.
- Describe the deceased as "having died by suicide" rather than as "a suicide" or having "committed suicide."
- Disclose all relevant facts, but do not provide morbid details like method or exact location of the suicide.
- Allow students an opportunity to express their feelings. "What are your feelings and how can I help?" should be the mantra behind the structure of discussion.
- Inform students of the available support services in the school (and outside the school) and encourage them to use the services.
- Establish support stations or counseling rooms in the school.
- Reschedule any immediate stressful academic exercises or tests if at all possible.
- Avoid flying the school flag at half-mast in order to avoid glamorizing the death.
- Follow up with students who are identified as at-risk and provide ongoing assessment and monitoring of these students (follow-up should be maintained as long as possible).
For a more complete list and additional information on youth suicide prevention in schools, view the Youth Suicide Prevention School-Based Guide posted online by the Florida Mental Health Institute.
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