Chapter 5: Planning for when a death is unexpected
Additional considerations when a student has died from suicide
“We (the staff) were utterly speechless. This was not a student who was on our radar as someone who was struggling. I was so grateful Tim (principal) had arranged for a grief and trauma counsellor to come into the school to provide guidance and support to all of us. It was a horrible time for us all”. – Teacher
A student’s death from suicide will have a profound effect on everyone in the school community and will require you to plan and implement some additional support strategies specific to supporting a school following a suicide death. If available, you should involve a crisis response team.
In addition to information already outlined in this module, below are some other considerations and tips.
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Consult with a school counsellor, social worker, or other staff member who has training in this area who can guide the process of informing students.
Remember that you need to first obtain the family’s agreement to share information, including the cause of the death being suicide. The means that the person used (i.e. an overdose, a gun) should not be shared.
It’s particularly important that a death from suicide not be sensationalized or glamorized. Only factual information should be shared, and simplification or speculation should be avoided.
Advise your staff to not use the phrase “committed suicide” because it has criminal overtones left over from times when suicide was considered a criminal act. This can be very distressing to family members. “Died from suicide” or “Died by suicide” can be used instead.
Consider providing staff with an outline that will help them to talk about the death with their students. This can help to ensure a common message and supports staff who are struggling to find the best way to tell students.
Communication should take place in small groups within a classroom or another private setting. This information should never be shared over the PA system or in an assembly.
Remind staff to watch for and identify any vulnerable or at-risk students so that additional supports can be put in place.
Keep in mind that any staff who had contact with the student who died may need support.
When informing students’ parents of the death, you’ll need to be sensitive to both their feelings and those of the bereaved family. This may require you to balance the need for information with a need for privacy or discretion.
For additional information about deaths from suicide, see Module 3 – Support for Student Deaths, Chapter 4 – After a student’s death from suicide.
For more in depth information on postvention after a death from suicide, please go to After a suicide: A toolkit for schools (2nd ed.).