Case study: a suicide in school

30th January 2004 at 00:00
"Death is nothing at all... I have only slipped away into the next room." The start of Henry Holland's beautiful poem on remembrance of a lost loved one sounds coldly unthinking as I reflect on the reality of suicide in a school community. Death comes unannounced and different. There is no standard fix that will help a school through that experience.

Like many schools, we have had our fair share over the years, but none hurts more than the loss of a young life deliberately taken. One such loss came some years ago. The first indication that something was wrong was a rumour that Joe had died, possibly by an overdose, possibly suicide. The police confirmed the death was suspicious.

There was a welter of emotions. Could we have foreseen it? We have an outstanding staff of guidance teachers who spend an incredible amount of time watching for and responding to pupil difficulties. Joe came from a vulnerable family, but despite challenging social and domestic issues, he always seemed reasonably laid-back. He and his brother - who had recently left the school - took the cajoling on punctuality, in particular, in good spirit. He didn't appear to be bullied. He didn't seem particularly isolated. It was a bolt from the blue. He was 16; a critical year for him and his classmates with exams looming. How would they respond to the news? What support could we offer his parents? Press, police, local authority - what of these?

As soon as we knew for certain that Joe had died, we had an assembly for the year group. We gave, as far as we could, the opportunity for anyone to feed us any information that would help us, the family or the police understand what had happened and why. We encouraged pupils to talk about it supportively and to turn to any of the staff with whom they were comfortable. Many did. We tried to continue life for the rest of the school and for the fourth year, not as if nothing had happened, but out of respect for Joe. But we stopped classes whenever there was a need to talk.

We offered the family any support we could; they wanted us to hold a memorial service in the church next door. Our chaplain, who is a real friend to the school, myself and another senior member of staff took part.

Most moving was the reading of a letter written by another pupil in response to a letter left by Joe on why he had taken his own life. "The one thing that troubles me the most is that we took Joe for granted. We didn't ask him how he was feeling or if we could do anything for him. I suppose there's no use thinking about it now, but the one thing Joe has taught us all is that we should always remember to look after one another and not put up a front or be too scared to make sure our friends know that they're cared for."

It was not the classic case of bullying; there were no public or private recriminations against the school. There was an overwhelming cry for companionship from a boy who saw life as hopeless. He felt helpless and probably worthless. In his letter he urged other pupils not to let their lives get to the level he'd reached, but to talk to each other and draw strength and support from each other.

We tortured ourselves regularly about the "what ifs", but I believe we could not have foreseen the tragedy and I'm not sure how we could have addressed his need. We have on many occasions before and since, I am certain, rescued others from a similar fate, either because we spotted a particular sign or they managed to talk to us in time. But every incident points up the uniqueness of human life and death. And each demands a unique solution.

My problem today is that I think we have a created a school society that has diminished rather than enhanced the opportunity for staff to get close to pupils. We have piled pressure upon pressure on staff and pupils. We need far more opportunities for pastoral and other staff to be approachable and to have the time to respond when the almost silent cry comes.

Holland's poem (read at the service) finishes with: "Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?" Joe has left an imprint we shall never forget.

The writer is a headteacher in Scotland. He wants to remain anonymous

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