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Dealing with student suicide – help when you need it most

With students’ mental health being such a high profile concern after the last two challenging years, it may be a good time to ask if your establishment is prepared for the worst possible scenario? Being ‘suicide ready’ is an uncomfortable and unattractive notion. It is, of course, a devastating event if it happens in any school, college or university. 

What do we do? How should we respond? Where do we start?An upset woman

Samaritans specialist Step by Step service for schools, colleges or anywhere young people come together, is available to help. There is no charge for the service.

The response to a suicide in any institution needs to be prompt, proactive and proportionate. It needs to have clear priorities.  All of this can be achieved in a professional and well-organised manner if it has been thought about, discussed and planned in advance. A comprehensive ‘Critical Incident Plan’ which is specific enough to account for a death from suspected suicide, (as opposed to one through illness or accident) is strongly recommended.


Samaritans’ Step by Step service offers these three strands of support.

Helping to create an effective Critical Incident Plan

A trained Step by Step Advisor can meet with staff to help create a ‘Death of a Student through Suspected Suicide Policy.’ A plan is created based on good practice gathered from working with a range of educational establishments. If there is no plan in place, the session can help create an outline which can be adapted to meet the school/university and its individual circumstances. If there is already such a plan in place, advisors can suggest refinements and identify any gaps.

Support in the aftermath of an incident

 The second area of support is where a death by suspected suicide has just been reported. Following a phone call to the Step by Step administrator an Advisor is allocated. He or she will be available by phone or e-mail and if appropriate, in person, to help guide events, to ask and answer questions, and to assist in any way possible. This may, for example, be help with breaking the news, support for students and colleagues, handling the media, preventing suicide contagion, providing advice on the wording of communications, liaison with the family of the deceased, discussion about memorials, and so on. Most importantly it gives staff someone to turn to for confidential support and advice through an incredibly distressing and challenging time. 

Reviewing the effectiveness of the Critical Incident Plan after an incident

Samaritans can also attend a review meeting, perhaps a month or two after an incident, to help look back at how well the existing Critical Incident Plan worked in managing the aftermath of a death. This has usually presented an opportunity to share good practice and has resulted in amendments to an existing plan in order to manage a more comprehensive response should it be required again.

Samaritans Step by Step Advisors cover the whole of the UK and ROI. They have received special and intensive training for work in postvention, critical incident planning and support. All are also active listening volunteers on Samaritans helpline (Freephone  116 123). 

Step by Step can be contacted by any educational establishment, from primary schools to universities and other Higher Education Institutions. The service is ready and willing to help and support in distressing circumstances. It can be contacted on 0808 168 2528 or at stepbystep@samaritans.org.

Content by Geoff Rickson, former headteacher and Samaritans Step by Step advisor

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