The issue - There's no need to face tragedy alone

21st February 2014 at 00:00
In the terrible aftermath of a student's suicide, school leaders must share the burden and seek support and advice from every source

The sudden death of a student is always traumatic, but when that death is a suicide it is one of the hardest challenges a school leader may face, and one that I hope most never have to experience. Sadly, I have had to cope with several during my career.

It is hard to talk about the impact of a student's suicide without resorting to cliche. It has a visceral effect that makes it all the harder to deal with, although that physical, emotional reaction is an important corrective when carrying out the necessary conversations and arrangements. Empathy and feeling must guide all your decisions.

There is a lot to think about when a tragedy such as this strikes: how to inform young people, colleagues and parents; how to handle the heightened emotions of everyone, including yours; how to provide space and support for the grieving. On top of all that, the media will probably call and may even turn up on the doorstep. On one occasion, a tabloid journalist actually sneaked into our school and took photographs without permission.

At my school, we struggled through two suicides without external assistance. I learned that human beings have the resources to cope, but that decision-making can be impaired in moments of extreme stress. I felt self-doubt and found that, at times, my pastoral concern for the students and staff could be a colossal burden.

The third time, I sought help.

Beverley was 14 years old. She took her life over the weekend, so we didn't find out until the Monday. I contacted the local authority and we held a strategy meeting, attended by the local police officer responsible for child protection and a representative from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. The latter recommended seeking the help of the Step by Step team at the charity Samaritans. I was more than willing to take advantage of their expertise and advice.

Maggie from the Step by Step team contacted me very quickly and the strategy she put in place was the model of how things should be done. We broke the news to the children in a way that meant there was one consistent message, and the provision for upset students was explained to everyone. Children who were unable to cope with lessons had permission to sit with staff members whose role was to provide support.

Maggie advised calling a special meeting of Beverley's year group the next day, during which I explained what had happened in more detail. From then on, more counselling support was available.

She helped me to write a statement with the local authority press officer, and a shorter one for the school receptionist to use to keep journalists at bay, referring them to the local authority's media team.

Maggie then arranged a "well-being evening" for parents who were fearful that somehow suicide might be contagious. Deep love of your child can lead to some dark and irrational fears, but Maggie's ability to engage with that kind of anxiety made her intervention invaluable. She also offered advice to parents on how to enable their children to open up to them.

Samaritans' calm advice was vital in helping us to manage the situation. When the tabloid journalist got into the school, the charity helped me to make a complaint and ensure that the photographs were not published. And, because permanent memorials run the unintentional risk of glamorising suicide, they also advised replacing, after an appropriate time, the inevitable pile of teddy bears with a book of memories that was later given to Beverley's family.

Maggie gave us help when we needed it most and showed us that, with support and advice, it is possible to act with resolution and compassion. At such a stressful time, it is immensely valuable to be told that you are doing the right things.

Now, a year after Beverley's death, little pockets of anxiety remain among students and staff. We continue to seek the help of Maggie and her team and it continues to be invaluable. Having that external support is so crucial: we cannot do everything on our own, and to refuse assistance is to the detriment of how the tragedy is handled.

These are some of the many important lessons we learned in the aftermath of Beverley's suicide. My hope is that if such a tragedy occurs in your school, our experience may help to ease the pain of the incredibly testing time that follows.

The writer is a headteacher who wishes to remain anonymous. All names have been changed

Samaritans' Step by Step project is supported by money raised through Sport Relief. Sport Relief 2014 in schools takes place on 21 March. To get involved with your school, order a free fundraising resource pack.

In short


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