Talking to Students

We have put together some information and suggestions to help schools who have been affected by a death by suicide in their school community. We hope we can help you with the unique issues and experiences of those bereaved by suicide, and guide you through such a difficult time. Remember that anyone affected – including you – may need some extra support.

Why is death by suicide different?

  • The grief is often far more intense, and there is often a lack of ‘closure’
  • People bereaved may look for ‘answers’ and try to find reasons the person took their life
  • Some people may feel there is a stigma associated with death by suicide
  • The bereaved are more likely to become socially isolated
  • Sometimes, people may feel responsible in some way for a person’s death. For example, if a student took their life and were bullied at school
  • People may feel the guilt associated with not anticipating or preventing the suicide

How can suicide bereavement affect younger students behaviour?

  • Heightened insecurities (e.g. fearful, clingy, tearful)
  • Acutely distressed/agitated
  • Anxiety about being left
  • “Acting out” – pushing boundaries
  • Breaking known rules
  • Risk-taking behaviours
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Aware of mortality and scared of death
  • Poor performance at school
  • ‘Attention-seeking’ behaviours
  • In shock
  • Regressive behaviour (eg. in eating/sleeping/toileting)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Traumatised
  • Excessive anger
  • Depressed

How suicide bereavement can affect older students behaviour?

Older students, for example, University students, may experience similar emotional and behavioural changes following a death by suicide as those listed above, in the context of adult behaviour, however, they also have the added weight of pressures that comes from being at University. For example, navigating their new independence, maintaining high academic performance and building relationships with new people. Therefore a bereavement, and especially bereavement by suicide can have an immense effect on their mental health and wellbeing.

It may be difficult for staff to be aware of a struggling student, as there are often fewer contact hours between university students and staff. Also, students may find it difficult to speak up when they are struggling. It is important that universities are making sure to reach out to students, letting them know how and where to access support, after a possible death by suicide. 

Helping your students understand what has happened

  • Don’t put a time limit on the process of grieving, and support will need to be available on a continuing basis; not just after the initial shock of the death.
  • Sit quietly with your students and listen while he/she talks, cries or is silent.
  • Talk about the person who has died (if you can) in a sensitive and positive way.
  • Consider doing an activity with the students to remember/honour the person’s life, such as a memorial, or making a photo wall.
  • Make opportunities for students to talk to each other, look at photos or share stories.
  • Maintain a routine as much as possible. Routines can provide essential stability.
  • Acknowledge and believe the young person’s pain and distress whatever the loss.
  • Don’t panic in the absence or presence of strong emotional responses.
  • Be consistent, honest and reassuring. Talking about suicide in the correct way normalises the situation.
  • Be careful not to talk about the method a person may have taken their life.
  • Be aware of the effect of special occasions that may be hard for your student, e.g. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, Easter, holidays.
  • Be aware of your own grief and/or feeling of helplessness.
  • Reassure the person that grief is a normal response to loss and there is no wrong or right way to grieve.

Support and Guidance

Knowing where to access support is incredibly important not just for the child bereaved but also for those supporting them. In the case of supporting students, not all support will be applicable to younger students that may be applicable to older, and vice versa. However, support services will always be happy to work with you, signposting you to other support if theirs is not necessarily appropriate. 

Supporting younger Students

Winstons Wish, one of the UK’s leading organisations supporting children and young people bereaved; has comprehensive advice, guidance and support materials for schools supporting a child/ children bereaved. This includes bereavement training, bereavement policy templates and tools to help open up thinking and discussion around the topics of death, grief and bereavement. To explore this information, please see here. You can also talk to Winston’s Wish if you need information or advice surrounding supporting a child bereaved on their helpline by calling 08088 020 021, 9:00 am and 5:00 pm, Monday to Friday.

Child Bereavement UK is another leading and incredible organisation working to support children bereaved across the UK, who have resources and support for educators working with a child that may have been bereaved. They are also very mindful that a bereaved child’s needs may differ greatly depending on their stage of development and life experiences, because of this they have created separate information surrounding supporting children of primary school age, and those of secondary school age They also operate a helpline, 0800 02 888 40, which you can phone for free Monday to Friday, 9 am – 5 pm. Their live chat also operates during this time. Both offer confidential information, guidance and support to individuals, families and professionals.

Supporting older students 

Papyrus and Universities UK have collaborated to produce an in-depth framework surrounding understanding student suicides, risk actors, interventions and responding to a sudden death as an academic institution. You can access the framework here.

The BACP also has some incredibly useful information published surrounding ‘Student death and the university response’, which includes information surrounding a death by suicide.

Also, there are wider organisations such as the Ted Senior Foundation, who work in memory of Ted, who very sadly took his own life, to make sure University students that may be struggling with their mental health are supported. They do this through their support of services, their work with SHOUT, in which you can text #TED to 85258 for 24/7 crisis support, and through their development of initiatives such as ‘Ted’s Friends’. ‘Ted’s Friends’ is a new service currently undergoing development, in which they aim to make sure that one individual in every sports club at University will have undergone Mental Health First Aid training. These individuals will be able to provide anonymous, non-clinical support to any member of the team struggling with their mental health. As part of ‘Ted’s Friends’ these trained individuals will be supported by the Teds Friends network, to ensure they can voice any struggles or concerns. Information surrounding this project will be shared on their site here, over the next few months.