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Helping children cope with grief after student suicides

February 27, 2018 0 Comments

Coping with the anguish of a loved one’s death by suicide can be an overwhelming challenge for those individuals who were closely associated with the deceased. And when the suicide victim is a teen student, it devastates not only his/her parents and family members, but also other students and peer groups. Student suicides also result in a significant challenge for schools – to help other students, especially those already battling mental health issues, cope with the tragedy, and dissuade them from harboring suicidal thoughts.

Youngsters can go through a harrowing time dealing with the loss of a classmate or fellow student. Due to their fragile emotional state, they may feel genuinely aggrieved that the school is not doing enough to help them overcome the tragedy. Sometimes, schools’ responses to student suicides are perceived as matter-of-fact and terse, while at other times, schools contribute to students’ risks by publicizing details about a suicide or through other steps which may inadvertently sensationalize suicide.

Although various nationwide youth suicide prevention resources are available, they may not be adequately implemented in schools. Experts emphasize that before undertaking preventive programs, it is critical for schools to help students cope with their grief overcome the loss of a fellow student. However, schools may fail to provide this support to students for several reasons, including dearth of counselors, the stigma associated with suicide and mental health or due to insufficiently trained staff and faculty.

Encouraging discussions and staying connected with youngsters

Youngsters often struggle to keep pace with the developmental changes taking place during adolescence. A stressful event or traumatic incident can make this period even more challenging. It is important for parents, guardians and educators to maintain ongoing discussions with students and ascertain if they are considering suicide. Such discussions become paramount if a student’s peer or friend has died by suicide. Doing so can help students “put the death in perspective and heal in a healthy way.”

The response of a school to student suicides may fall short of desired levels because staff members may not know how to help during the post-suicide period. Moreover, students’ grief can manifest in many ways, such as silence, resentment, sorrow and alienation. Each of these emotions requires different responses and interventions. Due to their unique ways of expressing grief, some experts suggest that children should be allowed to cope with the loss in their personal manner. However, this may not be advisable for children with depression or other mental illnesses.

The post-suicide period can be utilized to help students recognize the association between suicide and mental health issues, including depression and substance abuse. It should be emphasized that depression clouds the decision-making abilities of people, often inducing them to take extreme steps like suicide. An important part of helping students cope with grief is to listen attentively and help them synthesize their intense emotions. It must be repeatedly stressed to them that suicidal thoughts or concerns should be discussed with a trusted adult.

Connecting students with professional mental health resources

Besides helping children overcome the tragic loss of a fellow student’s suicide, grief counseling should also focus on the larger issue of teen suicides. Past research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals aged 10-24 years. A recent CDC study found that suicide rates for teens aged 15-19 years increased 31 percent for boys and more than doubled for girls between 2007 and 2015.

To help students cope with grief and also dispel their suicidal thoughts, some schools have started organizing workshops and offering crisis prevention interventions. However, students largely lack proper resources, either for coping with grief or for managing underlying emotional issues. Providing mental health services or therapy is not the primary focus of school counselors, even if they have receiving some form of training. Instead, all efforts should be made to connect students with professional mental health resources.

Located in Delta, Utah, White River Academy is a leading therapeutic boarding school for boys aged 12-17 in the U.S. It uses evidence-based therapies to provide grief and loss treatment to teens in a safe environment. Contact our 24/7 helpline or chat online with a trained specialist for more information on our teen grief and loss treatment programs.


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