Helping campuses heal: A new comprehensive guide for responding to student suicide

Group encourages schools to plan ahead

The first guide to helping colleges and universities respond to suicides on campus through "postvention" was published last week by the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance (HEMHA).

The document is not meant to be read as step-by-step instructions after tragedy strikes, say HEMHA officials, but rather as advice on how to create a plan to sensitively and effectively respond to campus suicides before any have occurred.

"Instead of being reactive, let's be intentional about what makes sense for us as a campus community and how do we want to response and if this happens on our campus," says Monica Osburn, director of counseling at North Carolina State University and former president of the American College Counseling Association.

Related research brief: Creating comprehensive communities of care

This fall semester alone, at least 57 college students have died nationwide. Four have been ruled suicides. 

Created in conjunction with nine professional organizations, the document provides best practices for reducing the risk of negative behaviors, limiting suicide contagion, and aiding community healing following a suicide.  Until now, only hodge-podge suggestions from various organizations existed.

These include:

  • Respond quickly. Ensure rapid response by having a plan already laid out. A small amount of help given right away is more effective than a large amount later on.

  • Follow up. Supplement immediate responses with long-term courses of actions, such as events held on anniversaries of the event.

  • Form a committee. Identify coordinators and communication plans to streamline implementation efforts and lower the risk for errors.

  • Simplify. Resist the tendency to use jargon, be sure all professionals involved with postvention clearly understand directions.

  • Keep notes. After discussing with university legal counsel, the committee should keep track of actions taken for future effectiveness reviews.

  • Determine how to best communicate information. Address death directly and openly because delaying information encourages the spread of rumors.

  • Connect those in need with clinical services. Reach out to those most at risk for self-harm, they not may not seek out help themselves.

  • Balance memorials with the risk of encouraging further suicides. Ideally, not holding any service is best, but that may be inappropriate if schools typically hold memorials following other types of student deaths (Higher Education Mental Health Alliance, "Postvention: Guide for Response to Suicide on College Campuses," 11/2014; Kingkade, Huffington Post, 11/19).

From EAB's Student Affairs Forum

Responding to Students of Concern

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