Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

How School Counselors Can Assist Student Near-Death Experiencers

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

How School Counselors Can Assist Student Near-Death Experiencers

Article excerpt

This article provides a thorough, literature-based review of the impact of near-death experiences on children and adolescents in the areas of social and academic functioning in school. Gleaned from the published literature about how various non-school health professionals can most effectively assist near-death experiencers, practical suggestions and interventions are recommended for school counselors to effectively assist student near-death experiencers.


Over the past few decades, advances in medical technology have resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of people surviving close brushes with death. Among these survivors, as many as one out of three report memories of profound, mystical events that transcend the personal ego (Greyson, 2000). This type of ongoing consciousness in an alternate reality beyond the ordinary boundaries of time and space is commonly referred to as a near-death experience (NDE) because it typically occurs when someone is near death or intensely frightened by a physically or emotionally dangerous situation (Kellehear, 2009). Authors have proposed various explanations for NDEs. These include psychological models such as expectancy and physiological models such as oxygen deprivation. However, no psychological or physiological model put forth so far has withstood empirical investigation or succeeded in accounting for all NDE-related phenomena (Greyson, Kelly, & Kelly, 2009).

The field of near-death studies opened in 1975 with Raymond Moody's book Life After Life. By 2005, more than 55 researchers or research teams on four continents had published more than 65 studies involving almost 3,500 near-death experiencers (NDErs). Studies focused on the experience, its aftereffects, and related topics (Holden, Greyson, & James, 2009a). Results revealed that people from virtually every culture have reported NDEs (Kellehear, 2009). Among Americans, a 1992 Gallup poll revealed that 13 million--5% of the population--reported having had an NDE at some point in their lifetime. Taken together, these studies indicate that 17% to 35% of adult Americans who come close to death from illness or injury later report an NDE (Zingrone & Alvarado, 2009). NDEs occur among people regardless of diversity factors including age, religion, knowledge of NDEs, mental health, personality traits, and expectations about death (Holden, Long, & MacLurg, 2009; Kellehear, 2009).

Children and adolescents report NDEs after surviving close brushes with death due to serious illness, car accident, near-drowning, suicide attempt, drug overdose, heart failure, complications during surgery, and many other circumstances (Atwater, 1999; Dovel, 2003; Foster, James, & Holden, 2009; Steiger & Steiger, 1995; Sutherland, 2009). Although no estimate of NDE incidence among school-age students has been published, the statistical data for the general population indicates that one or more NDErs likely exist in nearly every school. The third author of this article, a public high school counselor, assisted five students with NDEs during the first two years of his employment at a metropolitan school in the southwest region of the United States. School counselors are highly likely to encounter NDErs at some point if they are aware of the markers, characteristics, and aftereffects of the experience.

Following an NDE, children and adolescents often struggle with unique physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs because of confusion in understanding and communicating such a powerful and ineffable event (Sutherland, 1996). Children and adolescents are especially prone to feeling overwhelmed with the aftereffects of an NDE and would likely benefit from the presence of an accepting and understanding counselor able to effectively help them integrate these events into their lives and/or refer them for counseling needs that exceed a school counselor's ability to address (Dovel, 2003; Steiger & Steiger, 1995). …

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