“I never believed my district would be affected by a student suicide. But then it happened. And two months later, there was another one. To say I was unprepared is an understatement.”
—New Jersey School Superintendent
What is the purpose of Lifeline’s Postvention?
When a school experiences the death of a student or faculty member under any circumstances, that first moment of shock and disbelief is almost immediately followed by the question: “How do we help the school get through this?” When the death is a suicide, there may be even more concern about an appropriate response. The decisions of administrators set the tone for the school’s crisis management strategy. However, it’s important to remember that not only is every level of the school affected by the death but also that every level brings its own kind of support and resilience to the recovery process.
The authors of this manual have been involved in helping schools manage the impact of suicides for over thirty years. Their background and experience combine the wisdom of mental health crisis response with the need for a practical, education-focused school response. The strategies suggested have been field-tested for many years and often incorporate interventions used by the educators with whom they have worked. They have translated the language of mental health into the jargon of the school. Their goal is not to turn the school into a crisis centre or mental health clinic but to help it fulfil its critical but limited role in the process of recovery.
This manual outlines a response strategy that recognizes both the resources and the challenges schools face in dealing with a death within the school community. The designation community is intentionally used because it accurately reflects the composition and climate of a school, as well as provides a systematic structure for response. The authors further define that community as “competent and compassionate” meaning that everyone in the community is concerned about each other’s welfare and knows where and how to get help for themselves and other community members. By considering this “competent and compassionate community” as the context for crisis response, we can begin to impose order on what often seems like a chaotic process.
What is Postvention?
The word postvention was coined in the mid-1970s by Edwin Shneidman, one of the pioneers in the field of suicide prevention. It stands in contrast to the terms prevention and intervention and describes the specific crisis response in the aftermath of (or post) a death by suicide. Interestingly enough, postvention often incorporates both prevention and intervention. This is especially the case when dealing with youth suicide because there is such a grave risk of copycat behaviour or imitation in this aged population.
Although this manual is primarily concerned with deaths by suicide, the recommendations and guidelines provided can and have been used by schools in the aftermath of deaths ranging from homicides and multiple-fatality car accidents to sudden teacher death in the classroom.
Is this Manual Based on Research?
In the 1980s, schools began to recognize the need for specific plans to manage the reactions of their communities in the aftermath of a suicide. However, very little guidance was available to them. Over the years, a body of what are called “best practices” has accumulated, and these have strong implications for policies and response protocols. This manual will review some of the key best-practice recommendations, such as those from the American Association of Suicidology, and describe ways in which they can be practically implemented in your school. Each chapter will address one of the components of the competent school community and outline in detail its role in the postvention process.
In addition to being based on best-practice recommendations, this manual is also derived from the postvention model developed by Maureen Underwood and Karen Dunne-Maxim in the 1980s and outlined in their seminal work Managing Sudden Traumatic Loss in the Schools. Several features were unique to this work:
- It was one of the first postvention models to recognize the value of incorporating community resources in the school’s postvention strategy
- The crisis intervention paradigm—the provision of support, control, and structure—was easily adapted to both the realities and needs of the school environment
- It applied individual grief theory to the school system and clarified the ways in which a traumatic death could be acknowledged and managed effectively as part of the recovery process
- It was developed during Underwood’s and Dunne-Maxim’s experiences in schools dealing with a variety of traumatic loss events. It reflected the real-life challenges of adapting best-practice recommendations to situations where resources might be limited and the nature of the loss quite overwhelming.
What Is the School’s Role in Postvention?
Regardless of the circumstance of the death, the role of the school remains critical but limited:
- to maintain the structure and order of school routine
- to manage reactions to the death with appropriate and supportive intervention
- to provide resources and support to the school community to recognize and minimize suicide-contagion risk
The specific material provided to further organize this process comes from the perspective and experience that the authors bring to this project. As indicated, their backgrounds reflect expertise from schools, community mental health, and suicide prevention. Their practical experience in guiding hundreds of schools in the aftermath of traumatic deaths is informed by current best-practice standards, evidence-based research, and a keen appreciation for the resources and limitations of a school’s response capacity.
What Are the Objectives of this Manual?
This manual thematically addresses the following five objectives:
- To validate the critical but limited role of the school in response to traumatic deaths like suicide.
- To develop the concept of the competent and compassionate school community as the context for response.
- To present a best-practice model to assist in the development of policies and procedures for structuring the school’s response.
- To present a toolbox of practical response options that reflects the developmental needs of students.
- To identify school-based and community resources for vulnerable students.
In each chapter, the rationale behind the strategic recommendations is provided, and ways in which they can be practically implemented in the school setting are described.
Who is the Intended Audience?
The manual is divided into chapters that focus on the components of the competent school community:
- school administrators, whose leadership and direction set the course for the practical implementation of the postvention process
- crisis team members, who are the first responders guiding the school in botth the initial and longer-term response strategy
- faculty/staff, who are often the first adults to whom students turn for suppor
- students, whose needs for support following the death of a peer are generally recognized, but whose roles and responsibilities as members of the competent community, especially in identifying at-risk peers, are often unrecognised
- parents, who often need education and direction to help them manage the reactions of their children to the death
- community at large, an often overlooked component of the school community, which is always affected by the death of a child and whose resources and expertise can augment or complement the school’s postvention process. The ways in which this larger community can partner with the school are incorporated at relevant points in each chapter.