An understandably considerable amount of attention is paid to suicide prevention among young people, including high school age students. The vital necessity for ambitious, comprehensive suicide programs directed towards high school students cannot be overstated. With that important reality recognized, attention also needs to be paid to suicide postvention in a high school setting. Specifically, strategies must be developed to support fellow students, faculty, families, and others in the aftermath of the death of a high school student by suicide.
High School Suicide Facts and Statistics
Before considering more directly postvention in a high school setting, it’s important to understand some essential facts about suicide among adolescents:
- Overall, suicide rates among high school students reached a 20-year high in 2019.
- The increase in the suicide rate among high school students was particularly significant among boys, up 14 percent.
- The suicide rate for girls rose 8 percent during the time period.
- The suicide rate overall for high school students is 12 deaths for every 100,000 young people in this cohort.
- Social media is associated with a considerable number of high school suicides each year.
These statistics were presented in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Immediate Suicide Postvention Steps in a High School Setting
In this day and age, a high school should have a written suicide prevention and postvention plan in place. The plan should identify specific administration, teachers, or other faculty members charged with initiating and overseeing the postvention process.
In the absence of a suicide prevention and postvention plan, certain procedures must be implemented when it appears a student has died by suicide. High school administrators, teachers, counseling team members, and others in positions of authority or that otherwise interact and are responsible for the wellbeing of students need to initiate a number of important immediate steps following learning that a student died by suicide:
- Confirm the facts and verify that the death in question was the result of suicide
- Ascertain the position of the family regarding the death and determine whether or not they want the nature of the death disclosed. The wishes of surviving family members need to be respected.
- If the surviving family supports providing the deceased young person’s fellow students with an acknowledgement of the manner of death, determine the family’s wishes on how the information is to be shared.
- Inform other faculty and staff members of the death by suicide.
- Assess the impact of the death on the school. Such an assessment is an ongoing evaluation with no specific timeframe dictating when it will conclude.
- Identify potentially at-risk students and staff members. Make appropriate referrals for suitable care and support.
- If possible, identify student opinion leaders who might be able to post helpful insights on social media or otherwise be supportive of their peers. The involvement of this type of student involvement needs to be something that develops naturally; students cannot be pressured into such a role.
- Have counselors available to the entire student population and staff. This availability should carry on for an indefinite period of time and until the need for such support appears to have subsided.
- Develop a strategy to suitably memorialize the deceased student. Ideally, planning such an activity or event involves staff, students, family, and community members. There is no set timeframe within which a memorial activity or event needs to occur. Such a planning determination needs to take into account the general feelings of students and staff following the death of a young person by suicide.
- Promote the availability of the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Postvention Communication Following a Suicide
A vital component of a meaningful high school suicide postvention strategy is communication. A number of different readily available lines of communication must exist in the aftermath of the death of a high school student by suicide. These include lines of communication between:
- Family of a deceased student and school representatives.
- Students and mental health professionals.
- Healthy communication portals between students
- Students and faculty members.
- Students and school administrators.
- School officials and law enforcement and other officials.
- School officials and the community at large.
Postvention Collaboration Following a Suicide
A healthier, more appropriately supportive environment is established when there is an element of collaboration between cohorts of individuals impacted in some manner by the death of a high school student. Cohort admittedly is a sterile term; however, it is useful in identifying people with different connections to the deceased student as well as the student body and others more generally.
The necessity for collaboration between parties following a high school student’s death by suicide is illustrated by endeavors that include providing appropriate post-suicide support to survivors of suicide loss, including students, teachers, and other faculty members. Collaboration can also be illustrated in the manner in which a memorial of some sort is organized for a deceased student.
Considering a memorial for a deceased student, examples of people who ideally might be involved in a collaborative effort might include:
- Family members (as their comfort level permits)
- Fellow students
- Faculty members
- Religious officiants (pastors, rabbis, etc.)
- Church or other religious organization members
- Community members (as appropriate)
- Funeral directors
Suicide Cluster Postvention Considerations
Finally, when it comes to suicide postvention, the possibility of facing suicide clusters must be understood. Unfortunately, clusters of completed suicides is a reality among high school students and young adults.
A proactive and comprehensive postvention response to the suicide of a high school student is proven to be a relatively effective approach to lessening the prospect of what technically is known as suicide contagion or other young people taking their own lives following the death by suicide of a peer.