Responding After a Student Death by Suicide

Guest post by Richard Lieberman

As a school psychologist with 40 years of experience in school crisis response, I have collaborated with many principals in the aftermath of tragic events that have impacted their schools and communities. I have found their leadership under such challenging and pressured circumstances to be admirable. However, many administrators are uncertain about how to respond after a student dies by suicide. Community members may believe that talking about suicide will put the idea into the heads of our students, but the research indicates that talking about suicide and taking action are the keys to prevention.

Suicide is a leading cause of death for middle level and high school youth in the United States. In 2016, there were 2,016 suicide deaths among youth ages 10–18.

When a student dies by suicide the whole school community is affected. Students, staff, and parents may be grieving, distressed, and struggling to understand what happened and why. Some students, especially those who were already vulnerable, may be at increased risk for suicide following the death of a fellow student. An effective response by the school, led by the principal and school mental health professionals, can provide culturally responsive resources to help students, staff, and parents cope with their feelings; assist in returning the school to a focus on its usual educational activities; and help prevent further suicides.

As a school principal, you may have some or all of the following questions about how to respond in the aftermath of a student suicide death:

  • What immediate steps should my school crisis team take when notified that a student has died by suicide?
  • What do I say to students and parents in initial communications? What do I say if the parents of the victim want their privacy respected and do not wish the cause or circumstances of the student’s death to be communicated?
  • How should my staff respond to help students cope after such an unexpected death? How should my school mental health staff intervene with students who might potentially be at risk?
  • How do I help my students memorialize their beloved peer without increasing risk in my most vulnerable students?
  • How can I use social media in positive ways in my response?
  • How can I work with local journalists to ensure that my community gets the information it needs without increasing risk among vulnerable students or violating the privacy of the family?
  • Who are the local and national experts I can turn to for help?

The answers to all of these questions and more can be found in the best practice resource, After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools, written by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

This toolkit reflects consensus recommendations developed in consultation with national experts, including school-based administrators and staff, clinicians, researchers, and crisis response professionals. It provides guidance and tools for postvention, a term used to describe activities that help people cope with the emotional distress resulting from a suicide and prevent additional trauma that could lead to further suicidal behavior and deaths.

The newly released second edition of this toolkit includes updated information and new tools and examples. This best practice resource is available free of charge at https://www.sprc.org/resources-programs/after-suicide-toolkit-schools. It has been enthusiastically endorsed by NASSP, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the American School Counselor Association.

What have you, and the other principals in your district, done to prepare for responding after a student suicide death?

Richard Lieberman MA, NCSP, is a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at Loyola Marymount University, and from 1986 to 2011, he coordinated suicide prevention services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. He has consulted nationally with school districts experiencing suicide clusters and contributed to both Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for High Schools and After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools.

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