Suicide Postvention in Schools: The Role of the School Counselor

By Fineran, Kerrie R. | Journal of Professional Counseling, Practice, Theory, & Research, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Suicide Postvention in Schools: The Role of the School Counselor


Fineran, Kerrie R., Journal of Professional Counseling, Practice, Theory, & Research


Many school counselors may encounter the suicide of a student during their careers. In this article, the author discusses postvention planning in the event of student suicide. Specifically, the role of the school counselor in responding to school crises, including student suicide, is addressed. Basic statistics on adolescent suicide are presented, suicide postvention in schools is defined, and recommendations for implementation by school counselors are made. An outline of the steps involved in postvention planning and special considerations for managing suicide postvention in schools are provided. Lastly, school counselors are encouraged to design and implement evaluation procedures to determine the effectiveness of postevention planning and share these results as an advocacy effort for increased suicide prevention and postvention awareness.

Recent highly publicized incidents of school violence have contributed to an awareness of and a need for crisis response systems in schools. Community members expect that their local schools will be safe and effective institutions of learning. Unanticipated crisis situations in schools can create chaos that "undermines the safety and stability of the entire school" (Johnson, 2000, p. 18). School counselors are expected to serve students and school personnel in times of crisis. The American School Counselor Association's (ASCA, 2000) position statement on the school counselor's role in a crisis situation provides direction, stating "the professional school counselor's primary role is to provide direct counseling service during and after the incident" (p. 1). One specific type of crisis that may be encountered in the school setting is the suicide of a student (Alien et al., 2002). This article will investigate the school counselor's role in the aftermath of a student suicide, examine the steps of the postvention process, and discuss implications of student suicide for practicing school counselors. It is particularly relevant due to the shortage of empirical or conceptual literature on responding to suicide in counseling settings (McGlothlin, 2008) and, in particular, responding to suicide in the school environment. What has been written on the subject typically references resources that are ten years old or older, suggesting that recent attention to the specific topic of postvention has been limited.

Adolescent Suicide

In the past 25 years, adolescent suicide has become a significant public health problem (Bridge, Goldstien, & Brent 2006). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2008), suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth. The CDC reported a study of adolescents (grades 9-12) in the United States indicating that 15% of the students surveyed had considered suicide, 1 1 % had formed a plan to complete suicide, and 7% reported attempting suicide in the preceding year. Parrish and Tunkle (2005) indicated that in recent years, suicides have accounted for 11-12% of adolescent deaths, Additionally, these statistics may be underestimated (Eschbach, 2005). Many youth suicides are not classified as such, but are instead categorized as accidents (Siehl, 1990) or deaths attributed to unknown causes. Although almost 86% of all suicides by youth under the age of 20 occur amongst 15- to 19-year-olds (Capuzzi, 2002), these types of deaths can occur at all ages, including students in elementary and middle school (Alexander & Harman, 1988; Maples et al., 2005; Parsons, 1996). Bridge et al. noted that risk factors for youth suicide attempts and completions include suicidal ideation, previous suicide attempts, suicidal intent (the extent to which a student wishes to die), and precipitating events such as interpersonal conflict, loss, or disciplinary actions. While psychiatric disorders, including mood, anxiety, substance abuse, and PTSD, amongst others, are common among youths who attempt suicide, 40% of suicide completers under the age of 16 do not appear to have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder and may not be clearly distinguishable from their non-suicidal peers. …

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