After Student Suicide, Too Many Schools Take the Wrong Approach

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.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kirsten

    Kirsten

    February 23rd, 2011 at 7:23 PM

    I always thought that it would be great if schools say to students at an assembly that if they have any kind of issue,any problem that they may have,they can approach the school counselors and seek guidance with complete confidentiality.I have not heard this from too many schools.That would actually be a big step in suicide prevention if you ask me.

  • chip

    chip

    February 24th, 2011 at 5:44 AM

    I think that having an assembly about it is a horrible idea. There are gonna be some kids who will get it and some kids who will totally tune out. That is not the way to reach students who are this age. They need to talk but it needs to be one on one or with a small group of friends, not hundreds of the in a gymnasium together. I know that I would have never spoken up in a situation like that even if there was something going on that I needed to talk about.

  • joyce

    joyce

    February 24th, 2011 at 9:28 AM

    The overall opinion of the person held amongst the students is important as well. Some people at school are loved and others are absolutely despised. Regardless, nobody should die and be reduced to “Oh, by the way, this guy? Killed himself…” during a school assembly. No matter who it was, the dead should be treated with respect and that loss acknowledged with more than a pamphlet. There has to be some middle ground.

  • Rosalee

    Rosalee

    February 24th, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    Keeping the TV crews away from school property and funerals would help. When I see footage of teens at a student’s funeral or laying flowers at a spot I can’t help but feel some are playing up to the camera. It’s a horrible thing to suggest I know but that doesn’t make it any less true.

  • Jackie Q.

    Jackie Q.

    February 25th, 2011 at 4:15 PM

    People severely underestimate how traumatic death can be. Seeing or hearing about a death in real life is completely different from fiction. I can watch the most violent movies released and not flinch, but I would probably have a heart attack if I saw someone get crushed by a car or walked in on them after they killed themselves. I do agree the schools need to take a less sensationalistic approach though.

  • Morag

    Morag

    February 25th, 2011 at 7:56 PM

    The Bible calls those who take their own lives fools (Ecclesiastes 7:17), and some believe that suicides go to Hell. However, it’s never said or even implied in the Bible. Having assemblies is going to encourage some idiot to upset others by saying that. The less spotlight is shone on the spiritual side, the better. It should be more about prevention and healing if anything.

  • Lesley

    Lesley

    March 4th, 2011 at 4:06 PM

    @Rosalee Truer words have never been spoken. A funeral is a private event for the friends and family of the deceased. It’s a time of great sorrow, not something a journalist should feel it’s okay to exploit for his paycheck. They should back off and not badger people who just lost a loved one. It must be awful having cameras there and then having to relive it when it’s on TV.

  • wendy

    wendy

    March 4th, 2011 at 4:29 PM

    @Kirsten In my experience, there is absolutely nothing a child can say to anyone and have it remain confidential. It always gets reported somewhere or is on file. I think this is a major problem in itself. There’s no guarantee of absolute privacy.

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