The aftermath of a student’s death by suicide among his or her peers can be complicated and even somewhat confounding. There is a need for a coordinated, comprehensive postvention strategy to be in place in a school setting to address issues that might arise among student suicide loss survivors.

Is There a Need for Postvention Support Following a Student’s Death by Suicide?

The simple answer to the question of whether there is a need for postvention following a student’s suicide is yes – definitely yes. The issue isn’t whether or not postvention needs to occur in a school setting, but to obtain a better understanding as to why it is vital and how it is to be undertaken.

The reality is that adolescent survivors of suicide are prone to experience some profound emotional responses to the death by suicide of a peer or member of their cohort. Should an adult in their life die by suicide, adolescents are likewise to be expected to experience a strong emotional response, depending on the connection a specific young person had to a deceased adult.

The likelihood of suicide increases in an adolescent population when a peer dies by suicide. That rate is thought to be higher than the case of workers who lose a colleague as a result of death by suicide. Workers are believed to have a suicide rate of 3.5-times greater than the general population after a co-worker takes his or her life.

It is also important to note that in considering the population overall, 54 percent of suicide attempters know someone who has taken his or her own life. 86 percent of those attempts occur 12 months or more beyond the date a known person dies by suicide.

Adolescent survivors of suicide experience emotional and psychological aftereffects following the death of a peer or other individual in their lives that include:

  • Depression
  • Complicate grief
  • Social anxiety
  • PTSD

Complicated grief may be a term that is unfamiliar. According to the Mayo Clinic, complicated grief is an inability to move through the phases of grief because the painful emotions are so severe and long-lasting that a young person has an inability to return to a more normal life.

Every individual – including adolescents – have their own, unique grieving experience pathway. Clinicians at the Mayo Clinic (and other professionals elsewhere as well) tend to identify four primary milestones associated with the overall grieving process. These are:

  • Accenting the reality of a loss
  • Allowing yourself the ability to experience the pain of that loss
  • Adjusting to the new reality in which the deceased person no longer is present
  • Having other meaningful relationships

Adults in a young survivor of suicide loss’ life need to be attuned to the symptoms associated with complicated grief, which are:

  • Intense sorrow over the death of a loved one
  • Focus on little else beyond the loved one’s death
  • Extreme focus on reminders of a loved one (or, in the alternative, excessive avoidance of such reminders)
  • Intense pining or longing for a deceased loved one
  • Difficulties accepting a loved one’s death
  • Detachment
  • Numbness
  • Bitterness
  • Feeling a lack of purpose or meaning in life
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Inability to enjoy life
  • Inability to enjoy remembrances of positive experience with a deceased loved one

Contagion and Suicide

When it comes to a discussion of postvention following a student’s death by suicide, the concept of contagion must be understood. Contagion in the context of suicide postvention is the process by which knowledge of a prior suicide influences a subsequent death by suicide (or suicide attempt).

The concept of suicide contagion is not connected to the workings of a contagious disease. Rather, contagion in the context of death by suicide is associated with the social learning theory. Social learning theory provides that new behaviors can be acquired by observing others. Learning in this situation is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context or setting. This type of behavior can be acquired or occur purely through observation. This can occur even in the absence of any type of direct reinforcement. Social learning is also known as modeling.

Cluster and Suicide

Particularly among students, suicides can and do occur in clusters. A cluster of suicides occurs when statistically excessive numbers of suicides occur in close temporal or geographic proximity to one another.

Oftentimes, a cluster of suicides occurs within a relatively compressed period of time. However, a suicide cluster can also be attached to a cohort of students.

Take for example a situation in which a member of the freshman class dies by suicide. No other deaths by suicide occur during the following year or so. However, during the class’ senior, another death by suicide occurs. A couple of years later, another suicide occurs among the members of the cohort. This scenario stretched out over time fairly may be called a cluster of suicides.

Myths Associated With Talking About Suicide

When discussing postvention, myths associated with talking about suicide to survivors of a suicide loss must be addressed. The most pervasive myth is that talking about suicide may generate suicidal ideations. This is false.

If the subject of suicide is breached with a person who already is entertaining suicidal thoughts or even suicidal ideations, that individual is not going to be pushed closer to the proverbial brink. Rather, the most common response by a person thinking about suicide is to understand that someone cares about his or her welfare.

If the subject of suicide is brought up with a person who has no suicidal thoughts, that individual is not going to begin to develop that type of mindset. At best, a person is going to be thankful that someone cares enough to inquire. At worst, a person not entertaining suicidal thoughts might be a bit irritated that the subject was broached.

Harmful Messaging Related To Suicide

There can be harmful messaging about suicide, however. For example, the manner in which the media reports on deaths by suicide can have an impact on future behavior for some people in some cases. There are some facts that have been ascertained about media coverage of deaths by suicide and how that reporting might impact a person with suicidal thoughts or ideations:

  • Frequency of media reports appears to increase the number of deaths by suicide
  • Prominence of press stories also appears to increase the number of deaths by suicide increase
  • Headlines that are dramatic appear to contribute to an increase in the number of deaths by suicide
  • Decrease in suicide appears to follow the implementation of precise media guidelines governing the reporting of deaths by suicides
  • Historically, deaths by suicide appeared to drop in number when newspaper strikes occurred