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What Educators Need to Know About Suicide: Contagion, Complicated Grief, and Supportive Conversations

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When suicide is in the news, in popular culture, or directly affecting a student who is grieving a lost loved one, it can be difficult for teachers to know what to say or whether to talk about it at all. But open conversations and offers of help can be a crucial lifeline for students, suicide prevention experts say.

As suicide rates have continued a multi-year trend of gradually increasing, the prevention community has expanded its focus beyond mental health providers and counselors by seeking to embed resources and knowledge among other members of the community, including educators, said Doreen Marshall, vice president of programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"In schools, there's been more emphasis over the past four to five years over training other gatekeepers, like teachers," Marshall said. "What we're starting to see is a shift to suicide prevention being more of a shared responsibility among the community, where there's a sense that we look out for each other."

The organization has developed resources for teachers, parents, and youth-oriented groups to help guide conversations and explain mental health concepts that may be unfamiliar to some adults. Among the biggest goals, helping people feel comfortable talking about a topic that has long carried a painful stigma.

People "have this thought that if I mention suicide, it's going to put the idea in someone's head," Marshall said. "If anything, it's going to open the door to a very important dialogue."


If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741


What Schools Should Know About Suicide Contagion

Two recent celebrity suicides have led to an increase in media coverage about the topic. And, while designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain were both middle-aged, it's likely that the talk of their deaths have made their way into the conversations of younger people, who consume media more regularly and independently than their parents did as teenagers.

Such coverage, if handled inappropropriately, can spark a contagion effect, particularly for people who are already vulnerable to suicidal thoughts, including some teens. Developmentally, teens are at a phase where they "look more to the external world to get messages about who they are," which can make them particularly receptive to problematic messages, Marshall said.

Prevention organizations were particularly troubled by coverage of actor Robin Williams' suicide in 2014, which led to a spike in calls to suicide helplines. 

Contagion concerns also flare up after a suicide in a community or student body, or when suicide is portrayed in popular media. AFSP released a discussion guide after Netflix's 13 Reasons Why, which portrays suicide, became popular among teens.

Some of the same principles that drive responsible media coverage can help guide one-on-one and classroom conversations:

  • Don't be too specific about methods, which can "fill in the picture" for people who may already be having suicidal thoughts, Marshall said.
  • Don't frame suicide as an inevitable response to mental health issues or difficulties in life, organizations say. Rather, discuss options students can turn to for support.
  • Accompany conversations about suicide with resources, like hotlines, connections to community support, or an offer to talk further. "It is an opportunity to educate, to promote helpseeking, and to let them know that they can get help before it gets to a point."
  • Don't use the word "committed," which suggests a crime and contributes to stigma. Instead, say someone "died by suicide" or "took his/her life."
  • Encourage students to seek help for themselves or others if they have concerns. 

How to Help a Student Who's Lost Someone to Suicide

Schools may also encounter conversations about suicide if a student has a friend or loved one who takes their own life. This creates special considerations for grieving and processing the event that differ from other kinds of death.

"Schools need to pay some extra mind about how that student is making sense about what has happened, where their supports are," Marshall said.

Children who lose a parent to suicide are more likely to die by suicide themselves, and prone to other psychiatric concerns, Johns Hopkins University researcher Holly C. Wilcox found in a large-scale study published in Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry in 2010. But support and resources can help counteract those effects, in the same way that strong connections to adults can buffer the effects of other forms of childhood trauma, researchers say.

Educators should also be careful not to assume that this is the first time a student has been impacted by suicide, Marshall said.

"All of this goes back to how important it is to just ask directly," she said. "If they have been impacted before, you might get some really important information about how the student is making sense about what has happened."

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has assembled resources to help parents, educators, and the public understand and discuss suicide:


If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741

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