1 Responding to Suicide in the School Setting Donna Schuurman, EdD, FT Executive Director The Dougy Center, Portland, OR
3 Sobering Statistics Suicide is the 3 rd leading cause of death among year olds (after auto accidents and homicide). It is estimated that for every young person who dies of suicide, there are who attempt to end their lives. The rate of suicide has been increasing since 2000.
4 The importance of language Commit suicide In 1999 The Compassionate Friends officially adopted the terms died by suicide or died of suicide to replace the commonly used committed suicide or completed suicide. The latter terms perpetuate a stigma dating back to when suicide was considered both illegal and sinful. (Equally unacceptable: suicided )
5 Language Please don t use suicide as a noun: He was a suicide. We don t define other deceased people by how they died: He was a leukemia. She was a car accident. He was a brain tumor. Doing so further stigmatizes the deceased by reducing the person to their mode of death.
6 Why? & Choice Conflicting thoughts: We ll never know why / It was because of his (depression/the bullying/break-up, etc.) It isn t your fault it was his choice. / His ability to make good choices was impaired by his (depression/mental illness/drug use/despair/hopelessness).
7 Why people die of suicide 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Facts and Figures, afsp.org
9 Definition of Suicide The act or instance of taking one s own life voluntarily and intentionally, especially by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind. == Merriam-Webster Dictionary 9
10 Legal Definition of Suicide Self-destruction; the deliberate termination of one s existence, while in the possession and enjoyment of his mental faculties. == Black s Law Dictionary 10
11 How should schools respond? 1. With pre-planned policies and protocols; 2. Consistent with how any student/staff death would be handled; 3. Without glamorizing the mode of death, or 4. Demonizing the deceased.
12 Policies & Protocols will: Provide a rationale for decision-making so that: you aren t making decisions based on the person who died or the method of death, thereby implying that some lives are more valuable than others; you can respond to family wishes or whims based on your pre-set policies and procedures, thereby avoiding some of the potential conflict.
13 Policies & Protocols (cont.) you can educate your students and staff about the value of life and the importance of community you provide your students with productive action and choices instead of a vacuum that they will fill, and you make suicide, depression, something that can and should be talked about, because when you don t, it leads to even more isolation
14 Components & Considerations Goals are: To support students, faculty, staff and parents as they grieve; To honor the life and mourn the loss of the deceased; To provide a safe environment for students to express themselves;
15 Goals, Continued To return the school environment to its normal routine as thoughtfully and quickly as possible, while recognizing that some students, faculty and staff will be impacted more than others by the loss. To identify, assist and if necessary, refer those who may be at risk.
16 Concerns regarding memorialization Contagion, imitation & Liability Issues
17 The Werther Effect Within psychological literature, denotes the tendency of people to die by suicide under the compulsion of imitation rather than for individual motivations. Term coined in 1974 by David Phillips in American Sociological Review, arguing that an individual whose suicide is widely publicized may become a role model for subsequent suicides, particularly among adolescents and young adults.
18 Werther Effect Re-examined In 1984 Wasserman, I.M. concluded that not all stories about suicide deaths lead to an increase in suicide deaths, but only stories about the suicide deaths of celebrities. (American Sociological Review, 49, ) CDC acknowledges that the role of imitation or contagion is less well-established than other risk factors especially noting depressive illness and history of past suicide attempts.
19 Imitation The process by which an act of suicide becomes a compelling model for successive suicide attempts or deaths; an underlying theory to explain the occurrence of contagion.
20 Contagion The process by which a suicide death facilitates the occurrence of a subsequent suicide; assumes either direct or indirect awareness of the prior suicide death.
21 Cluster A group of suicide deaths or suicide attempts, or both, that occur closer together in time and space than would normally be expected in a given community.
22 Postvention* Following a suicide death, planned interventions with the bereaved that aim to alleviate the distress of the affected individuals, reduce the risk of suicidal behavior, and promote the healthy recovery of the affected community. * With credit and appreciation to Edwin Shneidman
23 Memorialization The pertinent questions are not: Should we hold a memorial service at our school (or not)? Should we plant a tree, have a plaque, include a yearbook photo, have an empty chair at graduation, (etc.)?
24 Memorialization The pertinent questions are: What is our policy and protocols about how we will handle the death of a student or staff member? What are the implications of planting a tree, having a plaque, including a yearbook photo, having an empty chair at graduation, etc.?
25 Arguments Against School Memorials/Memorialization They romanticize the act of suicide They glorify the deceased They may encourage others to gain attention through dying by suicide The school may face liability if another student dies by suicide
26 The National Association of School Psychologists says both the National School Safety Center and Lieberman (Richard, PhD, school psychologist and consultant to the Los Angeles Unified School District s Suicide Prevention Unit) agree that no memorial service should be held at the school because it places the deceased student in the position of being a role model. From Teen Suicides: Life, After Death, NASP website,
27 Lieberman continues, it is not a far stretch for a child who sees a beautiful tree, a yearbook dedication or a memorial plaque to imagine he or she will receive such attention in death.
28 Memorials & Contagion There is not a single documented account of a suicide occurring because a previous student received recognition through a memorial service. There are multiple situations where cluster suicides have occurred when no school memorial services were held. (Not implying causality here, just commenting.)
29 Center for Disease Control (CDC), 1988 Recommendations for a community plan for the prevention and containment of suicide clusters, include: the response should be conducted in a manner that avoids glorification of the suicide victims and minimizes sensationalism. Everyone supports this!
30 Centers for Disease Control if the suicide victims are of school age, the deaths should be announced privately to those students most likely to be deeply affected. They should be announced to ALL; we cannot always know who is most likely to be deeply affected!
31 Centers for Disease Control After teachers are briefed, the suicide death might be announced to the rest of the students either by individual teachers, or over the school loudspeaker. A prepared statement should be read; NEVER shared over the school loudspeaker!
32 Centers for Disease Control Funeral services should not be allowed to unnecessarily disrupt the regular school schedule. Funeral services should be held when the family wants them held
33 Reasons TO Hold a Memorial There are no recorded incidents of copycat suicide deaths linked to a school memorial. Having a memorial service does not inherently glamorize the act of suicide, or make the deceased a role model.
34 Memorial Services, cont. By omission, we are devaluing the life of the deceased Not holding a service isn t going to stop kids from talking about what happened It demonstrates that adults are afraid and need to control It does not provide productive channels for honoring the life of the deceased
35 Memorial Services, cont. In the void, other actions WILL occur, and It opens the perfect opportunity for anger and destructive acting out, thereby Not supporting kids in their sadness and grieving, and It is a fear-based response
36 Suicide & School Memorials Not suggesting schools MUST have a memorial, but rather, that they have a policy and procedures for handling deaths of students and staff based on values, empirical evidence and sound strategy.
37 Think on these things: What is education? What is the mission of your school? In what ways do you seek to create community? What does a community do in response to traumatic events? What does whatever you do, or fail to do, teach your students?
39 References & Resources Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) sprc.org/states (links to resources within each state) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) samhsa.gov (Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for High Schools; free, 230 pages) Download from
40 American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Free: Toolkit for Schools: After a Suicide (download from website) Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program: Youth Suicide Prevention, Intervention & Postvention Guidelines, 4 th Ed. 2009
41 American Association of Suicidology Understanding Suicide; Supporting Children, DVD, The Dougy Center
42 Postvention Standards Manual: A Guide for a School s Response in the Aftermath of Sudden Death (4 th Ed.), STAR CENTER PUBLICATIONS, Kerr, M., Brent, D., McKain, B., & McCommons, P., University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
43 Thomas Joiner, Harvard University Press: Myths About Suicide (2011) Why People Die by Suicide (2007) Edwin Shneidman, Rowman & Littlefield: Suicide as Psychache: A clinical approach to self- destructive behavior (1995).