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The Role of Survivors in School-Based Postvention

By Maureen M. Underwood, LCSW, Clinical Director, The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, www.sptsusa.org

There is an old adage about the value of wisdom earned at a great price that seems ironically appropriate when thinking about the contributions that survivors of youth suicide can make to the postvention process in the school. Historically, of course, we know that many of the advances in youth suicide prevention and postvention have been driven by the courage and energy of survivors who have spoken from the invaluable perspective of experience. Because this perspective is both profoundly personal and universal at the same time- no one wants to imagine walking in your shoes- you may be in a unique position to offer guidance to your school before it experiences a tragic death. Look, for example, at just a few of the questions posed by schools that your perspective can be helpful in addressing:

  • Is the best thing a school can do is avoid talking about a death by suicide to sidestep calling negative attention to it?

As you know, not talking about a suicide doesn’t change the fact that it happened. Whether or not a school chooses to formally acknowledge the death, the students will be talking about it among themselves and it’s really to the school’s advantage to take control of the situation by making a statement about the death. This can go a long way to dispel some of the gossip and rumors that unfortunately often surround  a death by suicide. Schools wouldn’t avoid acknowledging a death that occurred as the result of an accident or a life threatening illness and a death by suicide should be no different. Remind a school about the importance of developing policies and procedures that are consistent regardless of the circumstances of the death. Treating every death in the school community in the same way is actually a much more positive strategy for containing the negative attention that may follow a suicide.

  • What should a school say about a death by suicide?

It’s important to recognize that there is a message the school can deliver to all members of the school community. This includes faculty and staff, parents, and students. The message, however, is limited and succinct: the school has experienced a tragic loss and there are resources both in the school and the community to help all members of the school community deal with their reactions to the death. If anyone is concerned about possible suicide risk for themselves, their friends or their children, they should be encouraged to reach out to a list of community resources that the school can provide either in a letter or on its website. It’s really important that the school not speculate about the reasons for the death. Even if seems clear that the student who died was dealing with a mental illness like depression or had a problem with substance use, those determinations are not within the limited role of the school and can unfortunately contribute to the gossip and rumors that surface after the death. As much as we would like to think otherwise, in many communities a diagnosis of mental illness can still be tinged with stigma, and raising the issue in the school immediately after a suicide death is probably not an effective suicide prevention strategy. Encourage the school to keep its communications after a suicide confined to acknowledgement of the death, expression of condolences to the family and friends of the deceased, and identification of community resources to help those who may need additional support.

  • Are there any suggestions for reaching out to the family of the deceased?  Things to do or say and things to avoid?

Your personal experience as a survivor may be the way you frame an answer to this question. What were the things your school did that were helpful, thoughtful, or sensitive? What were the things that seemed ineffective or insensitive? Here are some suggestions based on the experiences of other survivor families; see how they compare to your own experiences:

  • Make a brief, initial call to the family to acknowledge the loss and check out the facts about the death. This can be important when the school is operating with limited or inaccurate information .Unless the death happened several days ago, don’t ask about funeral details in this call; arrange to contact a family member later in the day to follow up about funeral information. It can feel a little insensitive to ask about burial plans when a family is still coming to terms with the reality and enormity of their loss
  • Remember the school’s limited role and do not make suggestions about the timing of the funeral services. Discussions about funeral planning should be left to the family, clergy, and the funeral home. Ask to be informed of details as soon as possible so the school can plan for substitute teachers, etc. if needed.
  • Secure the belongings of the deceased student as quickly as possible to insure they can be returned to the family. Locker and desk contents can be spirited away instantly by peers who want a remembrance of their friend, and families can feel additionally violated when they ask the school to return their child’s belongings and there is nothing left.
  • Immediately remove the student’s name from the school roster and mailing list. It can feel exquisitely insensitive for a family to receive mailings about the class activities of their deceased child.
  • Don’t forget about the family. Reach out to them after the death to check on how they’re doing. Remember, they remain a member of the school community even if their child is deceased and  a phone call every now and again to see how they’re holding up  is a way to honor their child’s changed but continuing membership in the school.
  • How does a school handle requests from a family for memorial activities?

This is an important question to address because it touches on the issue of suicide contagion or ‘copy-cat’ suicides in the vulnerable adolescent population. What research tells us is that  suicide imitation can follow a suicide that seems to be glamorized or sensationalized in the eyes of vulnerable peers. Many schools unfortunately report planting trees or gardens in the aftermath of suicide deaths that have grown to the point of student jokes about the ‘suicide forest.' Another school talked poignantly about a middle school girl whose suicide note contained references to the plaques in the hall that honored every deceased student in the school. ”Maybe this way I’ll get some attention” was what her note read. Families, on the other hand, want to honor the memory of their deceased child. The challenge is to meet the needs of both sides and create memorials that provide honor but do not contribute to the potential for contagion. Supporting local suicide prevention activities, of course, is ideal. Other schools have developed activities that foster student resiliency and enhance problem-solving. An increasing number of national organizations have teen-based programs that provide options for engaging youth in prevention activities. The bottom line is that you, as a survivor, may be in the best position to help the school craft a sensitive response to a new survivor family that can help them understand the contagion risks in their memorial request and make alternative suggestions.

This list of questions could go on and on but hopefully it has encouraged you to think about the variety of ways in which your experience can provide a school with both perspective and direction to guide its postvention policies and protocols. A small consolation, but a reminder that your gift to other families may be to guide a school in a sensitive and informed response at such a very difficult time.

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