Nuanced suicide postvention responses
There are instances when a more nuanced postvention response is required to help restore safety and promote wellbeing. These include responding to a suicide:
- in the Koorie community
- of a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and gender diverse, Intersex, Queer and questioning (LGBTIQ+) student
- in a culturally and linguistically diverse community
- in school holidays
- impacting primary school-aged children
- of a staff member
- of a parent/carer
- in a Flexible Learning Options (FLO) setting.
Responding to the suicide of a Koorie student
Koorie people are more likely than non-Koorie people to have been affected by suicide of a friend, family or community member at a young age. This is due to the higher rates of suicide in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations and the often large family, kinship and community networks of Koorie people. Racism, discrimination and the impacts and accumulation of trauma across generations as a result of colonisation, genocide and the violent dispossession of land and children contribute to mental ill-health and high suicide rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Due to increased exposure and systemic barriers preventing Koorie young people from accessing culturally responsive mental health services, suicide may be seen as a more normalised response to challenges, potentially increasing the risk of suicide for Koorie young people. Koorie young people need culturally safe and informed care following the suicide of a peer or community member.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural traditions relating to death have been developed and practised over thousands of years and can vary widely between different communities. Aboriginal cultures throughout Australia often have unique mourning and healing processes following death or suicide. Many Koorie people call times and practices associated with death, grief and bereavement ‘Sorry Business’. There may be specific responsibilities and obligations family and community members, including other Koorie students, need to follow. There is a dedicated ‘Sorry Business’ absence code for Koorie students absent from school due to Sorry Business.
Before initiating the school’s response, it is important to:
- think about students’ specific cultural needs
- contact the Koorie Engagement Support Officer for support and advice
- not assume you know what the student’s family and community will need and the cultural protocols that will apply
- respect the wishes of the student’s family and community
- provide a safe and supported space at school for Koorie students. This could be a safe place or room supervised and coordinated by an appropriate staff member where Koorie students of all ages can come together to receive and offer support. A safe place will allow reflection and grieving in a culturally appropriate setting.
- consider engaging an Aboriginal mental health practitioner and/or an Elder or respected person to meet with Koorie students and their families and provide culturally safe supports.
Understand that there may be specific protocols that may need to be observed. For example Koorie community members:
may not want the name of the person used or their image shared
may not want to go near the place of the death
may need to perform ceremonial grieving or cleansing.
Responding to the suicide of a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and gender diverse, Intersex, Queer and questioning (LGBTIQ+) student
LGBTIQ+ young people can especially vulnerable to suicide. Research shows that compared to non-LGBTIQ+ peers, LGBTIQ+ students have higher:
- experiences of poor mental health
- risk of suicide.
'Writing themselves in 4' published by Latrobe University in 2021 found that almost three-fifths of LGBTQA+ young people had seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months with over one-quarter having attempted suicide at some point in their life. A greater proportion of transgender young people, over two-fifths, had attempted suicide in their lifetime compared to cisgender people in the study.
This increased vulnerability is due to experiences of discrimination, bullying and harassment, often driven by LGBTIQ+-phobia.
Some LGBTIQ+ students also talk about being exhausted by a sense of remaining strong and proud when coping with ongoing discrimination or bullying. This can be more intense if a student is also discriminated against because of race, class or disability. It is important to remember that while LGBTIQ+-phobic behaviour impacts on all students, LGBTIQ+ students are particularly at risk of poor mental health due to ongoing experiences of discrimination.
Students may also not be accepted or supported by their families due to sex, gender or sexuality or may not have told others that they are LGBTIQ+. This can increase feelings of isolation and fear of discrimination. LGBTIQ+ students will often describe friendship groups as kin or chosen family. This can result in a stronger sense of affinity between LGBTIQ+ people, which increases the impacts of suicide on individuals. LGBTIQ+ students may be affected by the suicide of students or LGBTIQ+ community members who they did not know.
Students who live in a rural or remote area may also feel isolated due to lack of LGBTIQ+-specific supports or visibility in non-metropolitan communities.
The school’s IMT can help to respond by:
- understanding the impacts of bullying and discrimination on LGBTIQ+ student mental health
- planning communication and notifying kin or chosen family
- being aware of LGBTIQ+ students when there has been a high-profile or recent suicide of an LGBTIQ+ community member
- providing emotional and psychological support from staff who have a lived experience or significant understanding of LGBTIQ+ identities
- considering LGBTIQ+ community memorials or tributes, including if your school has an LGBTIQ+ student group (for example, Stand Out Group or Rainbow Club)
- considering marking anniversaries and important dates (for example, trans day of remembrance, International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia (IDAHoBIT).
For more information and support to implement LGBTIQ+ inclusion in your school, contact Safe Schools.
Responding to the suicide of a student from a culturally and linguistically diverse community
People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (CALD) are identified as a priority population for suicide prevention efforts in Australia. Risk factors include the experience of trauma and discrimination and a lack of access to health and support services due to cultural or language barriers (Life in Mind, 2021).
While there is an increased vulnerability of people from CALD communities, it is important to acknowledge:
- the diversity of CALD people and communities – there is no single CALD community, and each has distinct needs
- there are also a number of protective factors which include religious beliefs, increased resilience from previous experiences and family and community cohesiveness.
Consideration should also be given to other identity-driven needs and roles a CALD person may have that may overlap with other communities, including being LGBTIQ+, having a disability or living in a rural or regional community.
Everyone has unique and diverse understandings of, and spiritual beliefs regarding suicide and mental health. Diverse cultural and religious perspectives also influence the way in which individuals, families, carers and communities may respond to a suicide, including if and how they access and engage with relevant supports. However, the role of family and social supports remain a key component in how young people are supported following exposure to a suicide.
Before initiating the school’s response, it is important to:
- consider the students’ specific cultural and language needs, including whether an interpreter is required
- not assume you know what the student’s family and community will need and the cultural protocols that will apply.
- seek advice from and involve your school’s Multicultural Education Aide/s in the response, and/or from the Department’s refugee education support providers ( and the )
- consider additions to the safe and supported space that is currently being offered to students. This could be a place supervised and coordinated by an appropriate staff member where students from the CALD community can come together to receive and offer support. This can allow reflection and grieving in a culturally appropriate setting.
- engage community leaders about best ways to respond and support their community
- utilise existing relationships with community members where appropriate, recognising barriers impacting establishing new relationships during this time with students and families
- explore and recognise individual, family and/or community strengths, protective factors, cultural, religious traditions and rituals that may promote a sense of connections and belonging during this time.
- actively listen and respect the wishes of the student’s family and community
- consider various therapeutic modalities to promote engagement in post intervention supports (art, music, recreation) and not only focus on talk-based therapy.
Young people from refugee backgrounds
It is important to note that young people from refugee backgrounds may be of increased suicide risk. In a school setting, seemingly everyday things can trigger trauma reactions. Triggers can include sirens, sudden loud noises, confined spaces, unexplained routine changes, and actual or perceived threatening body language or behaviour
Foundation House can provide counselling to students and families of refugee backgrounds to address the physiological, social and emotional impacts and effects of their traumatic experiences. Young people can be referred to whether they are newly arrived or have been in Australia for many years. They are required to meet the following criteria:
- have a refugee or refugee-like background.
- have a history of torture and/or other traumatic events prior to arrival in Australia or be an immediate family member of such a person.
- be experiencing psychological or psychosocial difficulties believed to be associated with their experience of torture and traumatic events
- consent to receive services (if under 18 years of age they need consent of parents/carers).
- do not pose an unacceptable risk to the safety of staff or other clients.
While not all students exhibiting trauma reactions require a referral to Foundation House, where problems are persistent and severely disrupt the student’s capacity to participate and learn, a referral may be helpful.
Responding to a suicide in school holidays
When a death occurs during the school holidays, there are additional considerations when thinking about how best to inform and support your school community and planning and coordination of tasks will be done in consultation with the school’s IMT and the Department’s ISOC team.
Departmental resources and support remain operational during school holidays.
When determining how to respond it is important to consider the likely exposure and impact to the school community. Where possible, convene an initial briefing with your IMT to determine the steps required to inform your community and identify those young people likely to be at increased risk and vulnerability upon hearing the news.
Before initiating your school’s response consider:
- whether support will be available onsite or remotely offered and the resources required to do this safely and effectively in order to reduce the potential for suicide contagion
- how the school can support the needs of students and staff immediately upon hearing the news:
- is it possible to convene an all staff meeting (onsite/remotely)?
- do we have staff capacity to inform the families of students most impacted?
- what support (remote or in-person) are we able to offer our community immediately following news that our school has been impacted by the suicide of a student?
- how the ongoing support needs of students and staff will be managed by the school and whether it is more appropriate for this to be managed by community services such as , or .
Responding to the death of a young person during the school holidays will require increased collaboration with external services as there are reduced opportunities for schools to observe the signs that indicate a student requires additional support. Informing the parent community in a timely manner is also critically important as it increases the likelihood for support to be offered early, reducing the ongoing impact to a young person’s mental health and wellbeing.
Responding to a suicide impacting primary school-aged children
Although the immediate urge might be to shield children from news of a suicide, they respond to the behaviours and emotions of those around them and will likely sense that something has occurred. Preparing to tell a child about suicide can be daunting and requires consideration of the child’s age, developmental stage, personality and experiences of adversity and/or death. It is important to use language that the child will understand and allow them to ask questions.
Like adults, a child’s grief response will vary and be influenced by the experience of those around them. Clarifying what they know and what they have heard is a good place to start. The resource provides some suggestions for navigating this conversation. It is not typically the role of a staff member to respond to a child’s questions about suicide. Understanding age-appropriate language will allow to you continue providing support to the student.
Responding to the suicide of a staff member
The suicide of a staff member is a distressing time for the school community and, like the impact following the death of a student, the ripple effect is far reaching.
The principles of responding to the death of a staff member remain largely the same as when responding to the suicide of a student. However, it requires a more nuanced and targeted approach when considering how information will be communicated to the community and to what extent. These decisions will be made in consultation with the staff member’s family, SSS, SEIL and wider area and regional teams to assess the best course of action.
It is important to consider further resourcing options given the likelihood that staff may not be able to fulfil their responsibilities at work upon hearing news that their colleague has died.
Responding to the suicide of a parent/carer (primary or secondary school)
The school may experience the suicide of a parent/carer. This is a distressing time for the school community and, similarly to the impact following the death of a student, the ripple effect is far reaching.
The extent to which information is provided to the school community (staff, students, parents) will be decided on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with SSS, SEIL or wider area and regional teams. Factors that will inform this decision are:
- size of the school
- level of engagement of the deceased with the school
- level of community exposure to the death
- siblings at the school.
In some instances, informing the school community of the death will not be appropriate.
The purpose of informing the community of the suicide is to provide them the opportunity to talk to their child about suicide and facilitate access to mental health support, within the school or externally in the community, if appropriate. Furthermore, providing an opportunity for parents to speak with their children about grief and loss will be beneficial in the event they are in the same class as the student whose parent has died and lay the foundations for educators to continue the work of providing a safe and inclusive environment at school.
Flexible Learning Options
The principles of managing a suicide postvention response and the tasks required to restore safety and wellbeing following a suicide can be applied to Flexible Learning Options (FLOs) with some modifications to how information is communicated and support is offered.
Timely communication of accurate information remains the focus of initial actions undertaken by the school, informing their staff, student and parent populations of exposure to a suicide. Depending on the nature of the educational setting, you may alter the focus of information provided to meet the unique needs of the community you are supporting. For example, you might provide more detailed information about specialist community support services available or how to support the wellbeing of students engaging in an online learning environment and steps to follow if your concerns about their safety increase.
Reviewed 08 June 2022