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Colleges Are Turning to Science to Limit Suicide Contagion and Help Heal Campuses

Just as there’s research on how to prevent mental health crises and interventions for people who are actively suicidal, research is also developing around the effective steps that can be taken after a suicide to help communities grieve, restore a sense of stability and limit the risk of more deaths.

How to find help fast

It’s an area of particular interest for colleges, as suicide is the second-leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers and young adults, and these are the groups most likely to experience contagion. With the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating depression and thoughts of suicide in some people, several universities have needed postvention strategies over the past year and a half.

How to prevent suicide’s spread and heal vulnerabilities

According to best practices emerging from research, a “postvention” plan (which should be developed ahead of time, and ready to deploy immediately after any death by suicide) should include:

  • A defined team that will handle the response. This may include college or university leadership, counseling staff, campus security, residence hall management, the school’s communications team, legal advisors, and others.
  • A method of communicating the news of the suicide directly to students, staff and the wider community. It’s important to acknowledge the death was a suicide, rather than referring to it as an accident or unexpected passing, experts say. However, avoid sharing details about the manner of suicide, since someone else could use that information to harm themselves.
  • Counseling and other mental health resources to help individuals impacted by the suicide deal with their trauma and grief. Julie Cerel, director of the Suicide Prevention and Exposure Lab at the University of Kentucky, says that her research shows, on average, 135 people are affected by each suicide.
  • Guidelines on funerals or memorials. To reduce the risk of suicide contagion, any memorial sites or activities should not glorify, vilify or stigmatize the deceased student or their death.
  • A clear vision of future prevention efforts. Many suicide researchers say postvention is a form of prevention. It presents an opportunity to recognize risk factors such as depression and implement ongoing mental health support for the community.

Get students involved in the solution

This on-the-ground understanding is why students should be consulted when universities develop postvention plans, says Amy Gatto, a senior manager at Active Minds, a nonprofit focused on mental health for young adults. “They’re going to be able to give more valuable feedback than just a committee of staff members.”

Just as important as this sort of campuswide outreach is directly contacting classmates, teammates, roommates and the like who were closest to the student who died, mental health experts say.

“You are so loved”

Another important postvention step can be limiting memorials. Although students need opportunities to grieve, experts say memorials sometimes glamorize suicide and lead others with suicidal thoughts to see death as a way to receive love and attention. Instead, they suggest directing students to volunteer or donate to a cause they care about in their classmate’s memory.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: dial 711, then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Excerpted from “Colleges are turning to science to limit suicide contagion and help heal campuses” on NPR. Read the full article online for more details.

Source: NPR | Colleges are turning to science to limit suicide contagion and help heal campuses, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/11/16/1055970305/college-suicide-prevention-science | © 2021 npr

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