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Approximately 1,100 college students take their own lives each year, making suicide this population’s second leading cause of death. This fact keeps student development professionals up at night, dreading the day it potentially happens on their campuses. But in addition to suicide prevention plans, it’s important for higher education leaders to prepare for those days and potentially prevent additional student suicides — by creating a postvention plan.
What is a postvention plan and why should a campus have one?
Suicide postvention is the provision of psychological support, crisis intervention, and other forms of assistance to those affected by a campus suicide. In the aftermath of a suicide, postvention efforts help the campus community get back to their pre-crisis level of functioning and develop new skills for dealing with challenges.
Postvention should effectively:
1. Facilitate the grieving and adjustment process
Postvention helps those impacted by suicide deal with the trauma and grief, as well as reduce the intensity of emotional, mental, physical, and behavioral reactions. An effective plan will encourage the expression of difficult emotions and help students, faculty, and staff process what happened.
2. Stabilize the environment
Postvention should stabilize the campus community, restore order and routine, and help the community return to its pre-crisis level of functioning. An effective plan will avoid institutionalizing grief (i.e. when the memory of suicide becomes ingrained in the campus culture).
3. Reduce the risk of negative behaviors and further suicides
Postvention should limit the risk of suicide contagion, as other students in the community struggling with psychological pain may be influenced to act in a similar way. An effective plan will also leverage lessons learned to improve future prevention, postvention, and response efforts.
It’s critical that postvention planning be done in advance. The plan should be specific enough to be useful, while flexible enough to apply to various circumstances. Postvention efforts and responses should also be reviewed within one or two weeks of the crisis and a month or more after the crisis to examine the effectiveness of the response and explore issues that could have been handled better.
This postvention guide created by a Higher Education Mental Health Alliance (HEMHA) Project is a helpful resource to make sure a plan is in place.
Reduce the stigma of seeking mental care on campus
Protocols to follow immediately following a suicide
The following guidance from the Centre for Suicide Prevention is a helpful start for college and university leaders as they create a postvention plan.
First 24 hours
1. Contact family members of the students who died
Offer condolences on behalf of the school community. Determine if the parents of the deceased student want the suicide disclosed. Recommend that the cause of death be acknowledged, without releasing specific details. Maintain a culturally sensitive approach, being aware of the background of the family of the deceased student and their beliefs and attitudes toward suicide.
2. Inform school staff, school district administration, and board
Educate your internal stakeholders so that they understand what has happened and have the resources needed to support students. Read more about developing a communications plan.
3. Inform all school families that a student has died with an official communication from the college president
It is important to recognize the death as a suicide, if permission is given by the deceased student’s parents. Provide reassurance that the school is returning to a normal routine. Offer assurance that counseling services will be made available for the school community and that more information on how to access these services will follow.
4. Operate the school as normally as possible, maintaining a stable environment
The purpose of this isn’t to ignore the death or minimize its significance in the lives of students. It instead is meant to provide stability for the overall campus, while giving students, faculty, and staff space to process what has happened and utilize available mental health resources.
5. Consult existing school policies or protocols regarding crisis management, student deaths, and suicide deaths and work with your district to implement them
If your campus has a crisis plan prepared, this is the time to make sure all policies and protocols are being followed. Review this thorough After Suicide Toolkit.
The days following a suicide
It is critical to follow up to ensure people receive the proper care after a suicide or suicide attempt. Those who have been exposed to suicide are at greater risk of suicide themselves. Here are some steps to consider to help people affected by suicide work through their grief.
- Arrange for group-based grief and loss counseling and make these services available to the entire school community. Clearly communicate session availability to students, staff, and the families of all students.
- Immediately identify students at risk of suicide and monitor them. A suicide death can be a triggering event for others.
- Meet with the deceased student’s closest friends and emphasize to them that they’re not responsible for the student’s death.
While this list is not a comprehensive plan, it is an example of the sort of considerations that should go into creating your campus’ own postvention plan.
Typical ways that students respond in the wake of a suicide
College students are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of exposure to the suicide of a peer. In fact, it can potentially lead to memorialization, which can be triggering, and lead to what is referred to as suicide “clusters” or “contagion.” Suicide contagion is when multiple suicides occur in a short period of time or defined location. Examples of this type of situation from higher education institutions include Rowan University and Appalachian State University. Contagion is rare, but young people are more vulnerable to it than any other age group. Those who may have higher risk factors include:
- Close friends of the person who died
- Witnesses of the death
- Students who had contact with the person shortly before the death
- Those with mental illness who already experience thoughts of suicide
- Those who have experienced suicide loss in the past
Studies of suicide clusters indicate that up to 5% of suicides may be related to other similar deaths. One study of adolescents found that the suicide deaths of classmates predicted suicidal ideation and attempts two years and longer after the death of the peer. Similarly, in a large longitudinal study of adolescents in the U.S., data revealed that among teens, having a friend who died by suicide increased both suicidal thoughts and attempts for at least a year following the loss.
The elevated risk for suicidality is not the only adverse effect of exposure to suicide. Many studies have also found elevated rates of mental health problems — particularly depression, but also including social difficulties and continuing grief reactions — in the bereaved when compared with other types of loss survivors or population-level norms. Survivors of suicide loss experience greater rates of:
- Bipolar disorder
- Substance abuse
- Psychiatric morbidity
- Complicated grief disorder
Suicide grief responses often include:
- Shock and numbness
- Profound sadness
- Anger and blame
- “Why?” questions
- Fear and depression
- Questioning religious beliefs
- Suicidal ideation
An effective postvention plan will ensure the student body, staff members, and faculty exposed to suicide or suicidal behaviors are evaluated by a mental health professional, and referred for additional mental health services as needed.
Resources to support your campus after a student suicide
Student development professionals should be mindful of their limitations and consider bringing in trained trauma responders and staff from local mental health resource centers to help. Often, college employees working directly in the situation are also impacted by a suicide death. Consequently, it’s important that they respond in ways that protect the school community while not diminishing or ignoring their own reactions to the death.
Colleges and universities should consider bringing in local or national experts in school suicide postvention for consultation and assistance. Consider these national organizations that provide crisis response and postvention consultation and training:
- The National Association of School Psychologists’ School Safety and Crisis Response Committee (NASP) provides phone, e-mail, and onsite consultation.
- The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children (TLC) provides names of local TLC-certified trauma practitioners. TLC also has certified trauma trainers who can come on campus to provide training on suicide crisis response and postvention, as well as other trauma-related topics.
- The Dougy Center: National Center for Grieving Children & Families provides onsite training as well as both phone and onsite consultations.
- The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) provides suicide prevention contacts in every state who can assist in identifying local experts. Check with your state’s office of education.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) provides the latest statistics on suicide and guidance for reporting safely and accurately about suicide. The organization also provides a complete After a Suicide Toolkit with comprehensive emergency action checklists.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hotline: 800-273-8255
A postvention plan can be a key to preventing suicide on your campus. A part of every plan should include how your college will provide around-the-clock counseling and on-demand support. Telehealth is one effective way to deliver such care. Telehealth eliminates wait times, reduces the stigma of seeking mental and medical care, and offers in-the-moment student care. When students don’t have to wait days or weeks for a counseling center appointment, there is a positive effect on campus health and wellness.
At TimelyMD, care is available 24/7/365 for any type of emotional support need, including crisis situations and grief support. As a strategic partner, TimelyMD providers support students and follow campus protocol in both crisis and postvention situations. Contact TimelyMD to learn how telehealth can make a difference in the lives of your students and support your college campus’ suicide prevention and postvention plans.