Supporting Students When a Classmate Dies From Suicide

Throughout my four years as a high school student, the subject of mental health was something that was rarely discussed in school. While we had many different educational assemblies about cultural awareness and being kind to others, we never once had a discussion about the importance of good mental health care. As someone who had struggled with their own mental health, this frustrated and confused me.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I saw the detrimental effects of the stigma that surrounds mental health. One month before school began, a close friend of mine died by suicide. Her absence made going back to school extremely difficult for me and many other students. We all had to endure grieving over a loved one, while simultaneously balancing the stress of a new school year.
During the first couple months of school, I noticed that the teachers and administration did not address the recent loss in our community. I was confused
as to why there was no school wide discussion on suicide prevention or mental health care. In light of my friend’s suicide, it seemed appropriate for students to learn about the importance of reaching out for help if they were struggling. Instead, the school was silent about her death. No announcements, no statements, nothing.

Looking back, I understand that the subject of suicide was a difficult one for my school’s administration to tackle. I was told by many teachers that the school feared suicide contagion as a result of discussing the topic. However, I also understand that lack of awareness surrounding the topic is dangerous and destructive. I witnessed firsthand many students at my school struggle with their mental health after losing a friend to suicide. Many of them were scared and confused, and they grieved in secret because there had been no public conversation about the grieving process or suicide at school.

Doing nothing in the face of a student taking their own life is the wrong response. Adults cannot expect students to know anything about proper mental health care without educating the students themselves. Even though suicide is a sensitive topic that is extremely challenging to talk about, it’s even worse to stay silent about it. I’m sure it wasn’t their intention, but by staying silent, my school contributed to the mental health stigma that causes so many students to struggle in secret and never reach out for help. As a student, I would have felt better supported if the school would have taken the initiative to acknowledge my friend’s death, and help guide me and other students in the grieving process. I wanted to do something to honor my friend’s life, but I didn’t know how to do it without glorifying suicide. Had there been more guidance from grief counselors, I would not have felt so confused or guilty for not knowing how to honor her.

There are resources and programs available to educate students and staff about suicide prevention. There are ways to grieve over a death by suicide without glorifying it. Often people are so afraid to talk about suicide that they do not talk about it all. This is something that must change. Many local mental health nonprofits like NAMI Seattle and Forefront offer free mental health awareness presentations for schools. Schools can use these resources to create a stigma-free community, help students improve their mental health, and even save lives.

Written by Lacy Nguyen

Lacy was a NAMI Seattle high school intern in 2016, and has since graduated and started studying  at Whitman University.

Posted on May 23, 2018
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