Nobody likes to think about a death of a young person. While suicide is rare, it is the leading cause of death among people aged 15-29. In 2016, 1,544 young people (aged under 35) in Great Britain took their own lives. However, this figure is likely to underestimate the ‘true’ scale of suicide among young people due to the under-reporting of suicide, in general.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to suicide contagion, which is when a suicide triggers suicidal behaviour in another. In a school or college, we may see this when there is a suicide of a student, which may influence others and result in further suicides or suicide attempts, and possibly contribute to a suicide cluster within the wider school community.
Research shows that young adults who have been bereaved by suicide are at higher risk of attempting suicide, whether they were related to the deceased or not. A Canadian study of young people aged 12-17 years, found that exposure to the suicide of a peer can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts or attempts and that this effect can last for more than two years. Despite being at higher risk of suicide, there is evidence to suggest that support for those bereaved by suicide needs to be improved. A recent UK study of adults (aged 18-40) who were studying or working at a higher education institution found that people bereaved by suicide are less likely to receive informal support than those bereaved by other causes of sudden death and are more likely to perceive delays in accessing any support.
Aside from increasing the risk of suicide attempts and thoughts in those bereaved by suicide, the death of a student can leave friends, family and schoolmates with many difficult emotions to process. Bereavement by suicide can cause reactions of guilt and shame which can leave individuals feeling isolated and stigmatised. The bereaved may struggle to make sense of what has happened and fundamental beliefs may be challenged.
The term postvention has been defined as “activities developed by, with or for suicide survivors, in order to facilitate recovery after suicide and to prevent adverse outcomes including suicidal behaviour.” Postvention activities in educational establishments play a key role in the recovery of a community, for example, by ensuring proper support and appropriate information is provided. Activities such as ensuring safe messaging about suicide, identifying those who have been affected by the death and providing, or signposting to, appropriate support can help to reduce feelings of distress and suicidal thoughts. In this way, it is possible to see how postvention can be part of suicide prevention. So what does effective postvention include?
Creating a response plan
Organisations with crisis plans to respond to a suicide are best equipped to deal with a suspected suicide when it happens. Good planning for the response to a suspected suicide makes it easier for people to deal with the situation effectively at a time when resilience is low.
It can be difficult to know where to start when developing a postvention plan. It can be helpful to begin with forming a team of people who will have key roles to play in responding, communicating and supporting the community in the event of a suspected suicide. Consider including members from the local community as well as internal staff, who can support you in a postvention response. This team can then plan the following out in detail, allocating roles responsible for each aspect of the plan. Your postvention team can consider the following:
Breaking the news
How you will communicate what has happened to the community. Informing key members of staff first, allowing time for discussion and ensuring support is available;
Break the news, wherever possible, face-to-face and in small groups, especially to those likely to be more affected. Be factual and avoid excessive detail about the act itself. Rumours may be circulating and people may ask directly, but try not to disclose details about the method used, whether there was a suicide note, or its contents;
Develop template scripts, emails and messages that can be used to communicate news, provide information and how/where to seek support.
Consider how to identify any young people who may be vulnerable, and what additional support can be made available for them;
Arrange support for those who need it as soon as possible;
Talk to young people about how to support one another;
Provide information about support available for the community.
Appoint a single media spokesperson for the school and discourage other students and staff from making public comments or using social media to discuss issues. Samaritans has published guidelines for the media, to ensure that reporting of suicide is sensitive and responsible;
Encourage respectful, supportive online behaviour and encourage peers to report any postings that they are concerned about;
Send out messages of support and signpost to support for all staff and students.
When planning protocols for funerals and memorials, every effort should be made not to glorify or glamorise the suicide. Care needs to be given to funeral and memorial arrangements;
Liaise with staff and students to share memories and any arrangements for memorials and attendance at the funeral;
Memorials should be carefully considered and in a place that is visible yet not impossible to avoid.
Samaritans have offered a Postvention service, called Step by Step, providing reassurance, practical support, information and guidance, to schools and colleges since 2010. Step by Step has a team of trained volunteers, called Postvention Advisors. These are listening volunteers who have had additional training in effective postvention activities and responses. The service was successfully piloted in universities this year and Samaritans are now exploring avenues to be able to offer a postvention service for HEIs and beyond. Find out more about the service here: www.samaritans.org/stepbystep
There is no single right way to respond to a suspected suicide of a student. However, by not addressing what has happened we can inadvertently add to the stigma; facts may be distorted by rumour or speculation and those affected may not seek help due to feelings of isolation and blame. As professionals working in education, we each have a role to play in suicide prevention and postvention.
Karen Harvey is the Service Improvement Manager (Education) for Samaritans - a charity, founded in 1953, that provides emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk from suicide, in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
ProtectED Student Wellbeing & Mental Health measures include the requirement, in 1.4.1, for member universities to have a protocol for providing support and assistance to the university community after a suicide, including creating a Postvention Committee. This section of the ProtectED Code of Practice was written in consultation with Samaritans.
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