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'We're not just going to sit silent': Campuses outline communication after student suicides

The period following a student suicide can be pivotal for a campus community.

“The system, the administrators (and) the clinicians need to be vigilant without creating a sense of hysteria,” said Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer for the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to reducing youth suicide and promoting mental health programming. 

According to the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics, suicide was the third leading cause of death for residents aged 15 to 24 years old in 2015. 

In the context of student suicide, Schwartz said there is some evidence of a contagion effect, where the knowledge of a suicide death increases the risk of suicide for others. Schwartz said physical and psychological proximity of fellow students can influence this effect. 

“The campus also needs to be vigilant about other students who might themselves be struggling with mental health challenges because they are also potentially going to be more distraught or their own risk might be increased,” Schwartz said. “And you need to do that in a way that doesn’t make everybody more anxious.”

The Higher Education Mental Health Alliance released a guide for responding to suicide on college campuses in 2014 to provide an outline for universities. 

The guide involves planned interventions of those affected by a campus suicide in order to facilitate the grieving and adjustment process and stabilize the campus. 

According to the HEMHA protocol, universities should be aware of how messages are shared to the public in order to limit the risk of contagion. 

Allen O’Barr, director of counseling and psychological services at UNC, said mental health providers are aware of the role media attention plays in this risk. 

“Somebody who may have been not making the decision to kill themselves will somehow feel like it’s facilitated by the act of someone else … I would say more than anything else it’s a phenomena,” O’Barr said.

Careful communication

Schwartz said university officials are often working with limited information when notifying students of a suicide. He said universities must share what they know while providing supportive resources to both the family affected and the larger campus community.

“Some of that then winds up looking to students like things are being held back, but often there are real limits to what can be shared under which circumstances,” Schwartz said.

Jonathan Sauls, dean of students for student affairs, said sometimes the University cannot release all of the information available for privacy reasons or at the family’s request. 

“When you have events, we know, for example, that it’s going to be talked about or is being discussed on social media, we’re not just going to sit silent on it,” Sauls said. “We want to reach out to folks. But how we do that has to be really careful and not speculate on things or violate student privacy rights.”

Amy Lenhart, a former president of the American College Counseling Association, an organization that contributed to the HEMHA postvention report, said the most important thing for an administration to do is reach out to students and make sure they understand which resources are available. 

“Connection is the key and certainly people who are closer to the individual are going to be more greatly impacted,” Lenhart said. “So reaching out is going to be important to providing those services — making visits to the dorm or to the living area.”

The spread of information

O’Barr said different types of media can shift people’s attention following a student death or a student suicide.

“With media and social media as available as it is, the attention of the crowd can be turned very quickly one way or another. And so a suicide is going to be something that frequently generates a substantial amount of attention to that,” O’Barr said. “And people will naturally ask, ‘How could that have been prevented?’”

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Schwartz said students’ access to social media can negatively impact the way information is shared.

“On the one hand, Facebook and Twitter can be an excellent way of sharing information," Schwartz said. "But sometimes, obviously, the information is not accurate or the information can be presented in ways that are unhelpfully traumatic or lurid."

“That can increase risk and be terribly distressing to the people who are receiving this just out of the blue.”

Schwartz said universities and media professionals are trained on how to share information involving a student suicide, but students are often untrained and may share information in damaging ways. 

“It can have the same impact as media reporting. So that’s a challenge. It’s a volatile and potentially serious and dangerous situation which, out of control, can unfortunately raise the risk somewhat for the people involved,” Schwartz said. 

Schwartz said there have been situations where families have found out about a student death before a university was able to notify them.

“The rapidity and the availability and the widespread connectedness have a lot of good things going for them,” Schwartz said. “But in the face of this kind of situation, where the administration is trying to be responsible in managing how communication is shared, it presents another really serious challenge.”

Lenhart said universities can use social media to share information about memorials and resources as well as monitor students' conversations.

The HEMHA postvention protocol says teams may encourage students directly impacted by a suicide to limit their social media communication until official notifications are made by the university.

Reaching the campus community

Sauls said the administration pays attention to case-by-case circumstances, but a standard notification process involves working across departments to provide student outreach and ensure the University is keeping track of documents correctly.

“We don’t want things to go from the registrar's office or have bills sent to people when that’s no longer appropriate — that can be a traumatizing thing,” Sauls said. "So to the best of our ability we want to intercept those types of things."

Sauls said his office often works as the hub to coordinate departments following a student death.

Amy Powell, associate dean of students at Duke University, said the protocol at Duke helps manage campus communications. 

Powell said the university makes sure to highlight counseling resources such as DukeReach, an office within Student Affairs that provides support services to students’ academic, interpersonal and healthcare concerns.

DukeReach works with the counseling center to monitor the student body and provide the best protocol, Powell said.

“Often times an organic process happens with students where there will be a gathering and we might send a couple of counselors from our counseling center to be available in case students have questions or want to talk to somebody,” Powell said.

O’Barr said a student suicide can cause attention to shift within the community, leading teachers and administrators to more closely examine warning signs. He said resources are often reevaluated as a result.

“There was a time, and it probably was between 10 and 15 years ago, where we did have a spate of suicides on the campus,” O’Barr said. “And we did get a lot of attention at that point and did get some extra counselors.“

Justine Hollingshead, chief of staff to the vice chancellor and dean for academic and student affairs at N.C. State University, said the process at N.C. State depends on circumstances such as where an incident occurs.

Hollingshead said following a student death, the university will send counselors to each class that the student was enrolled in. Ultimately, she said, circumstances determine if they will send out a mass message.

“Part of it is you can’t control what people may see if there’s police activity at a residence hall, for example. It really just depends,” Hollingshead said. “There’s no, ‘This is what we’re going to do every time.’”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, visit The Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. 


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