One of the most traumatic events that can occur in the life of a high school, middle school, and even elementary school student in this day and age is the death of a peer by suicide. Because of the truly harrowing nature of a young person losing a peer by suicide, special attention must be paid to appropriate postvention support and assistance. With this in mind, there are some specific postvention goals and objectives that warrant particular attention and consideration:

  • Promote healthy grieving
  • Stabilize the environment and restore equilibrium
  • Commemorate the deceased student
  • Provide comfort to those in distress
  • Reduce the risk of contagion
  • Minimize adverse personal outcomes
  • Use the experience as a teachable moment
  • Enhance empowerment for those throughout the school community

Promote Healthy Grieving

A primary task of personnel and others connected to a school in the aftermath of a student death by suicide is to promote healthy grieving. Psychology Today has identified what it calls four tasks associated with healthy grieving:

  • Accept the reality of loss or the death
  • Experience the pain of grief
  • Adjust to the environment with the deceased student missing or absent
  • Find an enduring connection with the deceased student while embarking on a new life

Stabilize the Environment and Restore Equilibrium

The phrase “return to normal” certainly is something of a cliché, as is the companion notation of “new normal.” On some level, a turn of phrase becomes a cliché and widely used because there is a sense of truth or meaning to it. This certainly can be said when it comes to “return to normal” in the aftermath of a student death by suicide.

An important postvention objective is to stabilize the environment at a school and restore equilibrium among students, faculty, and others in the broader school community in the aftermath of the death of a student by suicide. The restoration of equilibrium and the stabilizing of the school environment – the establishment of a new normal – should commence as soon after the death as appropriately and reasonably possible. The restoration of equilibrium and the stabilization of the broader school environment provides a crucial foundation upon which healthy grieving can proceed.

Commemorate the Deceased Student

Another postvention goal is the commemoration of the deceased student. There is a difference between memorializing and commemorating a student who has died by suicide.

Experts suggest that establishing some sort of permanent memorial to a student who has died by suicide is not necessarily the best approach. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that the student population in a particular school is transient. In time, those who knew the student who died by suicide will be gone and a while new cohort of students will take their place. A permanent memorial will not have the same impact with them.

As a consequence, a more vibrant commemoration of the deceased student’s life is the recommended course. This can take the form of something along the lines of an event held at an appropriate time following the student’s death. For example, some sort of endeavor to raise funds for a cause that was important to the student that involves the broader school community could be undertaken.

Provide Comfort To Those in Distress

Yet another of the primary postvention objectives following the death by suicide of a student is providing comfort to the survivors of the loss who are in distress. The obvious cohort of people in distress following the death of a young person by suicide will be fellow students. With that said, fellow students alone will not be the only group of people who are apt to be in need of comfort following a death by suicide. Others in need of comfort will include:

  • Teachers
  • Other faculty members
  • Deceased student’s family

Oftentimes as part of the comfort provision process is making grief counselors available at or through the school.

Reduce the Risk of Contagion

When a student dies by suicide, there exists a risk of what is known as contagion. In simple terms, contagion occurs when another person attempts to take his or her life in the aftermath of the death of a peer by suicide. Contagion more commonly occurs in a situation involving a student as opposed to other categories of people.

The risk of contagion can be reduced if a school takes a more proactive approach in screening surviving students to attempt to ascertain their emotional state. In addition, providing meaningful comfort and support in the aftermath of the death of a student by suicide can aid in reducing the risk of contagion.

Minimize Adverse Personal Outcomes

When it comes to postvention objectives, a concerted effort should be made to attempt to minimize other adverse personal outcomes behind those associated with contagion as discussed a moment ago. Every effort should be made to encourage and support healthy grieving. In doing so, adverse responses and outcomes like substance abuse should be minimized or eliminated.

Use the Experience as a Teachable Moment

If a school doesn’t yet have a comprehensive suicide prevention program, the aftermath of the loss of a student as a result of death by suicide provides an opportunity to begin planning for such a program. This doesn’t mean that a suicide prevention program must be rushed and launched immediately. Planning can start for a program to be launched and implemented a month or two down the road.

Enhance Empowerment for Those Throughout the School Community

Finally, an objective associated with postvention is enhancing empowerment for those throughout the school community following the death of a student by suicide. This goal can be accomplished in a number of ways and is helpful to an overall healthy grieving process for all of those who’ve been impacted by the death of a student by suicide.

Enhanced empowerment can occur through counseling support as well as by taking affirmative and meaningful steps to commemorate the life of the deceased student. Indeed, more often than not, enhanced empowerment occurs through a combination of these steps.

In the final analysis, striving to achieve these various objectives and goals permits survivors of a student suicide the best chance of working through the challenging aftermath of such a death. This applies to not only students but everyone else in the broader school community.