Short-term response (1 week – 3 months)
This stage focuses on the strategies and actions that will foster recovery and restore mental health and wellbeing.
This phase assumes that:
- the school has been informed of a death, and the death is confirmed
- the school and broader community have been appropriately informed of the death.
Key actions in this stage include:
- ongoing support of student and staff wellbeing
- continuing to closely monitor and follow up on student absences
- restoring the school to its regular routine
- enhancing the confidence of educators to restore safety and enhance wellbeing by:
- understanding how young people might experience grief and loss
- addressing behaviours in the classroom that may indicate that additional support is required
- preparing for the funeral
- managing and monitoring spontaneous memorials
- reviewing the student support room and sensitively closing (usually after the funeral).
- conducting in an operational debrief.
Young people impacted by a suicide often want to commemorate and remember their friend or fellow student. Memorials and tributes can be an important part of the healing and grief processes if done in a way that is safe and does not exacerbate psychological distress or suicidal vulnerabilities of others.
It is not uncommon for students to create spontaneous memorials at one or more locations that held particular meaning for the deceased student. This may be a locker or part of the school environment where the student would regularly visit; for example, a special tree or bench could be the place for leaving flowers, a poem or a letter for the deceased.
For some young people a memorial may support their natural progression to recovery. For others, it may complicate their response to news of the death. Striking the right balance requires sensitivity and compassion.
To maintain a safe school environment for all members of the school community, it is important to recognise that memorials and tributes will mean different things for different people.
It is important to:
- consider the location of the memorial – can people chose to engage in the memorial or not (i.e. is it centrally located thus removing the element of choice?)
- consider how the school previously managed memorials to causes other than suicide – altering the way a school responds to a death by suicide reinforces stigma and influences future help-seeking behaviours of those impacted
- respond in a culturally sensitivity way
- consider the timeframe for the memorial and how it will be removed
- look out for messages or references that may indicate a young person is at risk and requiring support. Any indication that a young person may be at risk requires following up immediately.
Efforts to restore normal routines will aid in the recovery and grieving process. After the funeral is a natural point at which schools can encourage the return to expected school activities.
If a spontaneous memorial is deemed inappropriate and may increase the risk to other vulnerable students, sensitively:
- explain the reasons for removing the memorial
- help students understand that efforts to keep the community safe and avoid the risk of suicide contagion is a priority
- discuss other ways they can commemorate their peer
- empower them to fulfil their desire to take action and aid their recovery.
Preparing for the funeral
Funerals and rituals can serve an important function for both adults and young people. While funerals can be distressing, they allow people to say goodbye and establish a shared understanding of the loss they have experienced.
Before the school can plan for how they might be involved in the funeral it is essential that to communicate with the bereaved family to understand their wishes and preferences for attendance.
Parental supervision at the funeral is essential as the funeral is not a school activity and staff in attendance are attending in a personal capacity and will not be able to supervise students.
It is recommended that schools:
- communicate to the school community the wishes of the bereaved family about attending and participating at the funeral
- clearly communicate to parents/carers that if student attendance is welcomed by the bereaved family that students are welcome to attend
- encourage parents/carers to provide supervision at home after the funeral, rather than returning their young person to school. Returning students to school can place pressure on the resources available to support other distressed students, and the time it takes to meet their needs.
- follow normal processes regarding permission to leave school premises.
Young people can find funerals distressing and may require additional support to process and understand their response to the loss.
Understanding grief and loss
Grief is a natural reaction to loss (APS 2020). The grieving process is unique to every individual and how we experience grief will vary in severity and duration. It can impact our emotions, behaviours and the way we think.
The list below outlines some of the symptoms of grief that people may experience following news of a suicide. People may experience a range of symptoms impacting their emotions, cognitions and behaviour or, alternatively, experience disruptions to one area of functioning more intensely (headspace 2019).
Grief will likely influence the ability to cope and adapt to the loss for a number of weeks or months but it is important to recognise that, with time and adequate support, most people will learn to adapt and cope (APS 2020).
Using available social supports as well as maintaining or strengthening self-care strategies and routines can help the natural progression of grief. Some people will continue to experience significant disruptions to daily functioning, referred to as complicated grief, beyond the expected couple of weeks or months and will require additional supports to cope and adapt to the loss they have endured (Hoare 2015).
Common responses to grief and loss
- Anger or numbness
- Changes in appetite
- Withdrawal from friends
- Increased fatigue/tiredness
- Sleep disturbances
- Preoccupation with loss
- Yearning for the deceased
- Difficulties concentrating
- Questioning of faith
- Disturbances to previously held beliefs of the meaning of life
- Experiencing the loss in conflict to religious beliefs
Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of students
It is important that the mental health and wellbeing of the entire student population is continually reviewed and monitored beyond the immediate days following exposure to a suicide.
Students requiring immediate support should be identified during the initial stage of the school’s response. However, reiterating the importance of noticing any changes in student presentation or behaviour and encouraging staff to follow up these observations will ensure that any student not initially identified as requiring support will be picked up at this point.
Every member of the school community has a role to play in identifying and facilitating early access to appropriate support for students, reducing the potential ongoing impacts of mental health symptoms and difficulties that may arise from exposure to the incident.
Liaising with external community mental health services involved in the care of students is also imperative during this time to reduce the potential ongoing impacts following exposure to a suicide.
It is not the role of educators to diagnose and plan an intervention responding to student distress, but rather to notice and gather relevant information about the signs, symptoms and difficulties a young person is experiencing that may indicate a mental health difficulty. This will assist the wellbeing team to coordinate the care of all students requiring support.
Schools can collaborate with specialist services to support outcomes for children and their families and streamline their experience across services. Schools may share information as required or authorised by law, such as to:
- meet duty of care, anti-discrimination, occupational health and safety obligations
- promote the wellbeing or safety of children, or to assess or manage family violence risk.
Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of staff
Beyond the immediate days of the school’s response to a suicide, it is critical to support the mental health and wellbeing of staff. Continue to communicate the support that is available to all employees of the Department via the EAP service and encourage self-care strategies.
It is important to acknowledge that staff may need to access leave or may request support to manage their usual responsibilities at school.
Encouraging staff to prioritise their own mental health and wellbeing is an important opportunity to model positive help-seeking and self-care for students and the community more broadly.
In the event that external support is appointed to undertake any of the operational tasks at the school (for example, CRTs, visiting teachers or staff temporarily appointed to certain roles), it is essential that they be made aware of the recent exposure to suicide and the strategies in place to support the response and recovery of the school.
In the short-term phase, as students, staff and the school community adjust to and make sense of the loss and impact, it is critically important to continue to comprehensively document the actions and tasks undertaken and to document the relevant details of interactions between staff and students.
Timely, objective, and accurate documentation:
- is evidence of the school’s efforts to support the community through to recovery and returning to promoting positive mental health and wellbeing
- assists in future incident reviews
- informs practice moving forward.
As the workload demands change, it may be beneficial to review the roles and responsibilities of staff involved in the care and support of students, particularly where risks and vulnerabilities have been identified. This is particularly the case if targeted support or additional resources available immediately after the incident are no longer in place.
Victoria Police, the Coroner’s Court or the Commission for Children and Young People may ask for documentation or information as they conduct inquiries or investigations. Schools should contact the Department’s Legal Division when they receive such requests and before providing documents or statements.
Depending on the severity rating of the incident, it may be closed in IRIS by either the Security and Emergency Management Division or regional staff, in consultation with the principal.
Conducting an operational debrief provides schools with the opportunity to:
- obtain valuable insight and lessons about how to strengthen the school’s existing mental health and wellbeing practices and policies to respond in the future – for example, a review might highlight the need to enhance the detail of what is included in the school’s induction program regarding the tasks that teachers might be called on to undertake, such as informing students via a pre-prepared script in the event the school is exposed to a suicide
- highlight opportunities to build the capacity of staff to identify and support the mental health and wellbeing needs of students by enhancing their mental health literacy and their skills in supporting students in emotional distress
- identify and strengthen Departmental relationships facilitating improved access to appropriate mental health and wellbeing support for students.
The timing of the operational debrief will vary depending on the nature and complexity of the response and the school community’s ability to move to a state of recovery. One indicator of recovery is the return of normal routines and decreasing emotional distress in students and staff.
Before engaging in an operational debrief, it is important that members of the Incident Management Team are given an opportunity to prepare effectively. It may be helpful to encourage them to consider the following.
Did we have the appropriate structures, processes and training in place to ensure we were able to respond in a timely manner?
For example, staff communication tree up to date, staff familiar with the school’s EMP and their role in implementing the actions identified, prior consideration of the structures and policies in place to convene staff briefings quickly.
- Perceptions on how the school managed informing the staff, student and parent/carer cohorts.
- What modifications would result in improved communication in the future?
- Was the language used safe and consistent with best practice principles (the , )?
- Is this an opportunity for further professional learning?
- Did the pre-prepared scripts support staff to inform their students?
- Would staff benefit from familiarising themselves with this script (not to memorise it) and their role in communicating this information to students annually?
- Reflections on how we identified, monitored and supported young people at risk of suicide or experiencing a mental health difficulty.
- Do we have the structures in place to appropriately share information about risk and vulnerability?
- Do staff and students understand what to do when they are concerned about a young person’s safety?
- Do staff feel confident in their ability and skills to engage students in conversations where mental health difficulties have been observed?
- Is this an opportunity for professional learning? ( and/or )
- Do we have coverage over the school week of appropriately trained staff who can conduct risk assessments with young people who have disclosed suicidal ideation and/or suicidal behaviour?
- Are our existing mental health and wellbeing approaches complementary to the activities required to support our community through response, recovery and back to positive mental health and wellbeing?
Engaging in regular communication about updates or modifications that will be enacted in response to the incident serves as an important function of moving the community through response to recovery.
It is beneficial to inform staff of any review that is planned for the purpose of improving practice and consolidating learning to inform future actions.
Modelling the importance of reflecting on practice can also invite constructive feedback and collaboration, further strengthening efforts to embed a culture that prioritises mental health and wellbeing within the school community.
The Department’s (also known as the SIMS policy) references the process for reviewing the management of the incident and the accountabilities to deem an incident closed, as well as undertaking an analysis of how the school responded to an incident and key learnings to strengthen future practice.
Guidance chapter focusing on the strategies and actions that will foster recovery and restore mental health and wellbeing
Reviewed 14 October 2021