ERIC Identifier: ED315700
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Thompson, Rosemary
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Suicide and Sudden Loss: Crisis Management in the Schools.
Highlights: An ERIC/CAPS Digest.
Suicide or sudden loss among student populations has become a major concern
for school counselors, teachers, parents and helping professionals. Within the
context of the school-as-community, the self-destructive potential of young
people is a major contemporary crisis. Classmates, parents, teachers, and
relatives experience both the direct implications of a student's death and the
residual long-term effects of a significant loss. The devastating feelings of
loss at a young age can be a traumatic experience for schools (Franson &
Hunter, 1988). Inherently, personal loss or threat of loss also increases a
person's suicide risk. Precipitating stressors include depression; loss of a
significant relationship; impulsivity; stress; substance abuse; negative life
events; physical, sexual or emotional abuse; isolation; alienation; or a
mystical concept of death (Ray & Johnson, 1983; Phi Delta Kappan, 1988).
Hawton (1986) and Perrone (1987) found that peers of adolescents who
attempted suicide are vulnerable because suicide is higher:
- among persons with unstable social relationships;
- when a population is self-contained (as in
school-as-community and school-as-institution);
- when imitative behavior is common;
- when the element of bravado exists; and
- when the act is sure to be noticed.
Balk (1983) further identified acute emotional responses of students after
the death of a peer. He revealed that while peer support and chances to talk
with friends about the death at such a time of loss were important aids in
coping with death, many peers feel uncomfortable talking about death. They
frequently avoid the survivors to decrease their discomfort of not knowing what
to say or how to say it. Balk maintained that young people sometimes hide their
feelings of grief because such feelings often are not considered acceptable in
public, and as a result, adolescents are often confused about the source of
their recurring grief reactions.
BEHAVIOR MANIFESTATIONS OF LOSS
The reactions of survivors
who have experienced a suicide or sudden loss are likely to be complex, but
typically include some or all of the following behavioral characteristics:
denial, anger, blaming, shame, guilt, fear, intellectualization, or hostility.
Stanford (1978) and Hunt (1987) further suggested the need for direct
intervention in schools with survivors. Shneidman (1972) noted that when a death
occurs, particularly of an unexpected nature, there is no pattern of behavior to
draw upon, and confusion results. Teachers also need help in understanding and
handling young people's normal, yet often inappropriate, reactions to death.
Young people often take clues as to how to react from the adults around them
more than from the event itself. A paramount need is for counselors, educators
and other support personnel to process the emotional needs of survivors.
Intervention to enhance coping skills could ultimately prevent future suicides,
or related self-destructive behavior.
MANAGING THE FIRST 48 HOURS
When a young person commits suicide, or is the survivor of any kind of tragic
death, the school counselor is confronted immediately with a number of serious
- Verifying what happened,
- Containing the information,
- Protecting the privacy of the family,
- Helping students cope with the death,
- Communicating beyond the school,
- Seeking resources in the community,
- Dealing with parents, and
- Minimizing the possibility that other students may
imitate the behavior and take their own lives.
The first 48 hours following a student's suicide or tragic death are crucial.
The specific things for a counselor and his or her staff to do during the first
48 hours are listed below:
- Verify the death. Meet or call the family; share with family what school
and staff plans to do; protect the family's right to privacy, but also share the
critical survivor needs of students and staff.
- Convene School Crisis Management Team.
- Meet with faculty to provide accurate information and
to implement school's crisis management plan.
- Designate a person to serve as a case manager.
- Call on city-wide crisis management teams or support
services if needed.
- Identify staff member(s) who will follow the deceased
student's class schedule to meet with teachers and
classmates and to work the hallways following the crisis.
- Make counselors and/or support staff available to
- Identify students about whom faculty and staff are
- Provide rooms for students to meet in small groups.
CRITICAL QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AFTER A CRISIS DUE TO SUICIDE OR SUDDEN DEATH
- How and when should the staff be informed?
- Is there a clearly defined phone tree in place?
- How and when should the students be informed?
- What specific information will be shared about the
tragedy with the teachers and staff?
- How will the school protect the family's privacy?
- Who is the spokesperson for the school and what
information will be released to the media?
- What will staff members be told to say if contacted by
- How should the personal possessions of the student be
- If feeder schools are affected by the crisis, how
should they be included in the overall postvention efforts?
- Will you have a "care center" for those students who
- Where will the "care center" be located?
- Who will supervise the "care center"?
- How will students be identified to come to the "care
- How many days will the "care center" be in existence?
- What available staff will you utilize city-wide?
- How will teachers, who are emotionally upset, be
TASKS OF MOURNING AND GRIEF COUNSELING
reality of the loss and confronting the fact that the person is dead are two of
the most important initial tasks of mourning. The early denial and avoidance is
quickly replaced by the realization of the loss and it is necessary to feel the
pain of the loss and work through the grief process.
The grief process includes adjusting to an environment in which the deceased
is missing. Survivors must face the loss of the many roles the deceased person
filled in their life (e.g., classmate, team member, close friend). Students need
to recognize that symptoms such as startle reactions, restlessness, agitation,
sleeplessness, depression and anxiety are typical intense reactions to a
traumatic experience such as death. Also essential is coming to terms with the
anger one often feels toward (1) the person who has died, (2) oneself, and (3)
others. A final task of mourning is to redirect the belief that one should have
somehow prevented the death.
SPECIAL TREATMENT ISSUES WITH ADOLESCENTS
regression and dependency.
- Realize their lack of life experience in handling
- Allow expression of feelings such as sorrow,
hostility, and guilt.
- Encourage discussion.
- Allow for fluctuations in maturity level.
- Watch for emergence of unfinished business or
unresolved conflicts of the past.
- Answer questions and provide factual information.
- Correct distortions.
- Avoid power struggles with adolescents.
- Focus on strengths and constructive adaptive
- Address conscious as well as unconscious guilt.
- Identify and help resolve adolescents' sense of
Young people continue to communicate their need
for help in understanding their feelings of confusion, loss, alienation,
loneliness, depression, anger, sadness, and guilt. Their ability to develop
coping strategies for their uncomfortable but normal feelings and their ability
to adjust to loss and maintain control over everyday life experiences, will
ultimately be dependent on the assistance they obtain and the resources provided
to them by the school-as-community. Counselors, administrators and other support
personnel can provide the curative environment that fosters prevention and
intervention with at-risk students. Collective efforts to provide structured
programs and secure environments to "work through" significant losses are
necessary to arrest the present cycle of self-destructive behavior of
Balk, D. (1983). How teenagers cope with sibling
death. Some implications for school counselors. The School Counselor, 31(2), 150-158.
Franson, J. P., & Hunter, E. (1988). When tragedy comes to school: Coping with student death. NASSP Bulletin, 72(510), 88-94. &&Hawton, K. (1986). Suicide and attempted
suicide among children and adolescents. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
Hunt, C. (1987). Step-by-step: How your schools can
live through the tragedy of teen suicides. American School Board Journal, 174(2), 24-37.
Mack, J. E., & Hicler, H. (1981). Vivienne: The life and suicide of an adolescent girl. New York: New American Library.
Maris, R. (1982, August). Death and suicide, a teenage crisis. Program presented at the 90th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.
Perrone, P. A. (1987). Counselor response to adolescent suicide. The School Counselor, 35(1), 51-57.
Phi Delta Kappan. (1988). Responding to adolescent suicide. Bloomington, IN: Author.
Ray, L. Y., & Johnson, N. (1983). Adolescent suicide. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 62(3), 131-135.
Shneidman, E. S. (1972). Death and the college student. New York: Behavioral Publications.
Stanford, G. (1978). An opportunity missed. The School Counselor, 26(2), 96-98.