When a student dies by suicide, the school community needs to be defined from a broader perspective. The school community is not just the students and faculty at a particular school. Rather, the school community includes not only students and faculty at a specific school where a young person has died by suicide, but also:
- Parents of all students in the school
- Students at other schools in the district or community
- Parents of students at other schools in the district of community
- Other people in the community with some connection to the school
Of these members of the broader school community, parents of other students in the school where a young person died by suicide require particular consideration. In this regard, a school administration is advised to prepare a letter to parents of all students in a school where a student died by suicide.
A letter to parents following the death by suicide of a student needs to include the following elements, each of will be discussed in greater detail in a moment:
- Provide accurate and timely information
- Delineate to parents how the school is responding
- Discuss suicide contagion
- Provide contact information and resources should parent are concerned about their own children
- Discuss how parents can support students, the school, and the deceased student’s family
- Convey funeral information
Provide Accurate and Timely Information
In preparing and sending a letter to the parents of other students in a school where a student has died by suicide, nothing is more important than ensuring that the communication contains accurate information and that it is sent to parents in a timely manner. Turning to the issue of timing first, the letter should go out to parents as soon as possible following the death of a student by suicide. Promptly sending out a communication to parents minimizes the prospect that parents will begin to receive inaccurate information about the situation.
A letter to parents need not be detailed when it comes to advising specifics about the precise manner of a student’s death. Rather, it suffices to advise that a student has died by suicide. In this regard, avoid phrases like “committed suicide,” “was lost to suicide,” “too his/her life,” and so forth. Suicide is a matter of public health and not something that should be tagged with unnecessary negative connotations.
Include a statement that if parents have any questions about the death, they can contact a specifically designated person at the school.
Delineate To Parents How the School Is Responding
The letter to parents needs to delineate how the school itself is responding to the death by suicide of one of its students. This element of the communication should include:
- Counseling and support services that will be made available to students
- Listing of resources available to students (as well as parents)
- How the school will commemorate the death of a student
- Description of a postvention plan the school (or school district) has in place
In addition to these points, a note should be made that the school administration would welcome any thoughts or suggestions about how to best serve the needs of students in a school following the death of a peer by suicide.
Discuss Suicide Contagion
The letter to parents should discuss suicide contagion. It’s important to understand that most parents will not understand the concept of suicide contagion. Thus, an understandable explanation needs to be provided to parents in the letter to them following the death of a student by suicide.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has developed a concise and understandable definition of suicide contagion that is appropriate for use in a letter to parents following the death by suicide of a student:
“Suicide contagion is the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. Direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide, especially in adolescents and young adults.”
The letter needs to contain direct, easy to digest information about the strategy the school will employ to lessen the risk of suicide contagion.
Provide Contact Information and Resources for Parents
The letter to parents following the death of a student by suicide needs to provide contact information and resources for use by parents who are concerned about their own children. These resources should include a school or district counselor. In addition, contact information for resources in a letter to parents can include links to the following organizations (which are linked here for convenience):
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center
- American Association of Suicidology
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- SPAN USA
- Active Minds
- Jed Foundation
Discuss How Parents Can Be Supportive
The letter to parents should include information about how parents can be supportive in the aftermath of the death of a student by suicide. The letter should note how parents can be of assistance to specific parties regarding the death of a student by suicide. These include:
- Their own children
- Other students
- The school itself
- Faculty members and other staff
If a funeral or memorial is to be held in the aftermath of the death of a student by suicide and students and others are welcome to attend the service or gathering, that information can also be included in the letter to parents.
On a final note, most schools maintain up-to-date email lists of students’ parents, Email is the most efficient way to reach out to and connect with parents following the death by suicide of student.