If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, help is available. Call or text 988 to reach the confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or check out these resources from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
When a child dies by suicide, schools are often tasked with leading students through the grief that inevitably permeates the classroom.
It’s a particularly challenging crisis to navigate. Leaders must address stigma, complex emotions, and death, while also working to prevent other deaths by suicide.
Though not a new problem, districts across the country are struggling to keep pace with students’ heightened mental health needs, a problem only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Youth depression rates are on the rise, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for children aged 10-24.
The most recent CDC Youth Risk Behavior survey, released in February, showed 22 percent of high school students—nearly one in four—seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year; 18 percent made a suicide plan; and 10 percent attempted suicide. LGBTQ+ students were most likely to report having suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Unfortunately, many schools and districts will be faced with responding to a student’s death by suicide. And because youth are the most prone to a phenomenon known as “suicide contagion”—when exposure to suicide or suicidal behavior influences others to attempt suicide—it is critical that they respond appropriately.
That can prove challenging with such emotionally charged and difficult-to-understand deaths.
“We have to overcome this level of shame and blame and guilt that exists around suicide,” said Alexandra Karydi, director of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s States and Communities Initiative. “It’s not a character defect of the person who died, and it’s not a character defect of people who are not able to help. It’s a health condition, like any other health condition.”
A district in New Jersey, for example, came under fire this month for its response to a student’s suicide, with its superintendent ultimately resigning amid the backlash.
Fourteen-year-old Adriana Kuch died by suicide early this month just days after she was attacked in school. The attack was recorded and shared on social media, and Adriana’s father has said the emotional toll was overwhelming for the teen.
In the days following Adriana’s death, the superintendent, Triantafillos Parlapanides, made disparaging comments about the child and her family to the Daily Mail, a British tabloid. He resigned a day after the article appeared.
Experts on youth suicide prevention and postvention—the response to suicide—say it is critical that school and district leaders are prepared to respond empathetically and appropriately to students’ deaths, which can be tremendously difficult for other children to process.
It can be helpful to have staff participate in suicide prevention training and to have policies in place addressing what should happen if a teacher suspects a student is considering suicide, how information is shared with the community if a student dies, and any parameters or restrictions around memorial displays and events.
In interviews with Education Week, experts shared some tips and best practices for districts to consider.
Don’t glamorize or fixate on how the student died
Unlike other deaths, youth suicides come with the risk of “contagion,” and students with mental health concerns could be at heightened risk for suicide immediately following a classmate’s suicide, so it’s important to avoid glamorizing suicide or idealizing the person who died, Karydi said.
Administrators should talk about the student in the same way they would talk about any student who dies.
Avoid making the announcement in a large assembly or over the school’s intercom, said Stephen Brock, school psychology program coordinator at California State University, Sacramento, and lead author of the National Association of School Psychologists’ school safety and crisis response training. Notifications should be made in small groups when possible, like in homeroom classes.
Schools should immediately mobilize a “crisis response team” to take the lead on the response. The team should include administrators, counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and school resource officers, if available.
Validate feelings and give kids time to grieve
Grief manifests differently for everyone, and it’s important to give students space to grieve in whatever way feels natural. Some may react very emotionally, while others might withdraw.
Regardless, nobody should tell students how they “should” react, or minimize their feelings, Karydi said.
“You have to give people space to grieve, and you can’t shut them down with toxic positivity like, ‘It’s going to be OK,’” Karydi said. “Feeling sad after somebody dies is really normal, and you don’t need to squash that right away. In fact, people who have time to heal and feel their community helping them heal, heal better.”
Private spaces should be set up for students to talk with counselors or other trained mental health professionals, but school staff shouldn’t assume students will seek out a therapist because they’re feeling sad. Schools should set up information about available mental health resources in a visible area.
In the days following a student’s suicide, schools should share information through in-person discussions and handouts about suicide, including coping strategies students can use when intense emotions come up. Those strategies include breathing exercises, exercise, and writing down a list of people to turn to for support.
Students may need help identifying their emotions, and it can be helpful for adults to ask them questions such as, “What is your biggest concern about the immediate future?” or “What would help you feel safer right now?”
Grief lasts longer than the immediate shock of death, and some students will likely need additional support longer term.
It’s also important to explain to children that mental illnesses are treatable and that there is nothing wrong with receiving help.
“It’s a combination of trying to reduce risk of future suicides and intervening and supporting and helping people cope with the losses,” Brock said.
Don’t try to ‘fix it’ too quickly
When someone, especially a child, dies by suicide, people often instinctively look for something to do that can “fix” the problem, Karydi said.
Districts might feel pulled to immediately roll out new training or awareness campaigns. But if they do so without leaving time for the school community to process the recent death, it could be retraumatizing.
“People will come in for the training and we’ll start saying, ‘This is what you can do to help somebody,’ and all of a sudden, we’re retraumatizing a whole group of people that are like, ‘Oh, I should have done this,’ and begin blaming themselves,” Karydi said. “Wait for the shock to pass and really work on postvention. When your people are ready, when it’s time, you can start working on additional prevention efforts.”
Avoid emotional events and memorials at school
It’s important, experts said, to have a policy about memorialization before a student death occurs, and that policy should be consistent, regardless of the cause of death.
Schools should consider having a time limit on how long memorials—such as displays of flowers, cards, or other items by the deceased student’s locker—will remain in place. Experts generally recommend that memorials be set up in areas that students can avoid if they don’t wish to see them and that they be left in place for approximately five days, or until after the funeral. The school could then offer the items to the student’s family.
A message could be posted near the memorial in the days leading up to its removal to notify people it will soon be taken down and given to the family to prevent any assumptions that school officials have removed it disrespectfully, Karydi said.
Schools should also avoid creating and encouraging students to wear things like T-shirts memorializing the student. That could unintentionally glamorize suicide deaths, Brock said.
“We don’t want to bring undue attention to the loss and give vulnerable youth the idea that dying is the way to get a lot of attention,” he said. “Avoid permanent memorials that would potentially romanticize or glorify the loss, and instead, strive to focus on living memorials that would address the challenges associated with suicide, which could be things like implementing a suicide prevention curriculum, in memory of the deceased.”
School leaders should encourage the family of the deceased student to hold the funeral off school grounds and outside of school hours. That allows for students to maintain their school day routines, Brock said. The school should remain open if the funeral happens during school hours, and it should follow normal procedures for absences (such only allowing students to leave with parents’ permission).
Schools should also consider holding memorials off campus to avoid creating negative associations to the death within the school. If a memorial takes place in the gym, for example, some students may associate the gym with their friend who died and avoid that space.
Have policies in place and staff trained in advance
Districts should strive to have a policy in place before it’s ever needed about how to handle a student’s death, including suicides, that covers everything from prevention to intervention to the aftermath.
California law, for example, requires every school district to have a suicide prevention and response policy, Brock said. That helps create a more intentional approach to schools’ efforts, and prevents “knee-jerk reactions” in the aftermath of a suicide. System-wide suicide prevention training can also be useful.
No policy will be 100 percent effective in preventing suicides, Karydi added, but is still useful.
“You should never have to think about how to put out a fire when there’s a fire,” Karydi said. “You always build the different alarm systems and infrastructure so that if a fire ever happens, everybody knows what to do and has the tools to address the fire. We want people to understand that this is a public health issue … and, yes, sometimes people still die, but our job is to prevent as many deaths as possible.”
Other recommendations—compiled from organizations including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC), the Education Development Center (EDC), and the U.S. CDC—include:
- Before announcing a student’s death, administrators should confirm the cause. Unfounded rumors or misinformation may have circulated, and misstating a student’s cause of death could cause great harm.
- Schools should treat all student deaths in the same way. Having one approach for a student who dies of cancer, for example, and another for a student who dies by suicide reinforces the negative association that often surrounds suicide and may be deeply painful to the deceased student’s family and close friends.
- A staff member should be assigned to monitor school social media accounts and any related to the deceased student for rumors or signs that other students may need additional help.
- When possible, following a student’s death by suicide, administrators should speak with the student’s family to identify close friends who may need additional services and attention.
- The anniversary of the death or other dates linked to the deceased student might be difficult for other students to process. Schools should consider having additional mental health services available at those times.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as How Districts Can Respond to a Student’s Suicide