Last week, I sat down with a friend, a social worker at a charter high school in Chicago. She, like many of my friends who work in schools, reads this blog hoping that she'll only have to put the prevention-oriented information to use. No one wants to prepare for after a suicide.
Yet, schools often scramble, devastated and in crisis mode, when a student dies by suicide. I worked with a school several years ago that didn't want to utter the word "suicide," fearful that just saying it would make things worse.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center have created a free resource to guide schools dealing with a suicide. "After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools" includes what-to-do checklists; sample statements to be used with students, parents, and media; and specific language to use when talking about suicide.
How to appropriately memorialize a student and key considerations for social media use are just two of the critical issues addressed by this new guide.
What the field of suicide prevention has learned from research and experience is that there is a balance to strike between drawing inappropriate or unsafe attention to a student's death by suicide and acknowledging the loss experienced by students, teachers, parents, and community members.
"After a Suicide" recommends a "identifying a meaningful, safe approach to acknowledging the loss." Treating a suicide death like another student death is important: It can cut down on possible contagion by not glamorizing or romanticize the student or suicide.
If a student died by suicide in the 1990s, fellow students would share information over the phone, spread rumors face-to-face, and create tangible memorials. Now, the same types of actions and activities are taking place, but online, virtually. Acknowledging that teens use social media to help cope with the loss of a friend, schools can use social media to disseminate information, connect vulnerable students with support and resources, and emphasize suicide prevention.
It is this emphasis on prevention that is an important piece of responding after a suicide. In crisis, there's a strong temptation to focus on the here-and-now. There's a place for that, especially to help people heal. But, when prevention can be a part of the big picture of responding to a suicide death, there's hope. Hope for the students who are left in the wake of the loss of a friend, hope for teachers and staff who are facing the untimely death of a young person, and hope for a school to see that an educational institution has a role in promoting student well-being.
Copyright 2011 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved