Two Ohio State University professors of Counselor Education say that when a student commits suicide, many schools inadvertently react in a potentially harmful way. It’s natural to want to cancel school for a day while students mourn, to hold ceremonies and memorials at the school, to explain the student’s action as an attempt to “end the pain,” and to talk with students about mental health and suicide in large assemblies. But Darcy Haag Granello and Paul Granello say that these behaviors effectively glorify and sensationalize the suicide. The outpouring of affection for the deceased student may seem desirable to other students who are struggling or feeling alone, and hearing “end the pain” from those in authority can skew their perception of health coping mechanisms for themselves. While school administrators may have good intentions, they may be sending the wrong message to their student body, which can lead to copycat suicide attempts.
This is not to say that schools should not talk about what happened, say the Ohio State professors, who are co-authors with Gerald A. Juhnke on a new book, Suicide, Self-Injury and Violence in the Schools: Assessment, Prevention, and Intervention Strategies. But there are better ways to go about it. Ideally, schools implement preventative mental health curriculum, educating students on the signs of depression, encouraging them to meet with school counselors or therapists, and encouraging them to come forward if they or someone they know is considering suicide.
It is also important to have a suicide response plan in place, just in case, rather than scramble to respond effectively when an unexpected event occurs. (The Florida Mental Health Institute’s School-Based Youth Suicide Prevention Guide is a great example.) If a student does commit suicide, say the Granellos, it’s important to address the students’ feelings, offer counseling and mental health support, and be open about the devastating impact that suicide has on schools and communities. That way students realize that the pain doesn’t end with suicide—it spreads. And by talking openly about reality of community pain, they’re encouraged to get help or counseling if they’re having trouble dealing with their peer’s death.
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.