Healing After Suicide in a School Community
Discussion Guidelines for Students:
"Our school experienced a sad event yesterday. One of our students or faculty members died. As some of you may know, he took his own life." Please do not say "committed suicide". It conveys the stigma associated with committing a crime or being committed for mental problems. Instead, use the term "died by suicide" "completed suicide" or "took his own life".
"He died by hanging" or whatever the means was. But do not focus on the means. Avoid going into details. It is easier for everyone to focus on the “how” than on the “why” but avoid doing that. It can help to say to students, “the way he did it isn't as important as talking about why he would do this. Let's talk about how you feel now and the questions that you have regarding how he must have been feeling."
Because this death may receive media coverage, the circumstances may become public information anyway. Many of the students may already know. You are not providing new or privileged information if this is the case. Many students, even as young as middle schoolers text one another and immediately comment with “R.I.P.” on Facebook. Many students have shared with us they learned of the death on social media.
Special Note: Respect the wishes of the family prior to announcing the death to the school community.
"Does anyone want to talk about your reactions to this death?"
Expect a wide range of responses that include the sharing of rumors and gossip. As these are expressed, you may want to interrupt to remind students that we don't really know what happened or what he/she was thinking at the time. Explain that rumors are always generated to fill the gaps in information and we must be careful not to get caught up in them or believe them. Facts are often manufactured to explain things we can't understand and suicide is one of those things that is impossible for most of us to imagine. Rumors also distract us from the sad fact that this person we knew is dead. Remember that most students will still be in a state of shock and the reactions may come slowly or develop over time. Let the students and faculty know ahead of time what common signs and symptoms of grief look like so they don't feel even more out of control.
Special Note: Let students know specific school professionals who are available at any time to talk with them immediately and in the future.
Because of the realistic concerns about suicide imitation with teens, it is essential that this discussion include information about suicide prevention.