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hennigan headshot Feb 16, 2018

Suicide in the school community: What I learned from my field placement

Every intern deserves a meaningful training experience via his or her field placements.  Sadly, some of the most valuable clinical lessons are learned when crisis strikes.

I completed my final internship at a public high school in one of the state’s most affluent and picturesque towns. My students were respectful, ambitious, talented and generally had the social support they needed to thrive. In many regards, I had an “easy” site.

I was at a baby shower when I received a staff-wide email (an oddity for a Sunday afternoon) from the school’s administration. One of my greatest fears emerged—a student had died by suicide earlier that morning. The next day, I would embark on one of the most challenging, heartbreaking and enlightening experiences of my counseling education.

The student was a well-liked athlete with good grades and a large friend group. During the following weeks, droves of classmates sought in-school counseling, as they tried to make sense of the unexpected death and the meaning it had for their own lives.

After processing this experience, I’d like to share with you a few of my impressions and “take-aways,” through the eyes of a junior clinician.

Students don’t always understand postvention best practices

In the aftermath of a suicide, preventing contagion is a priority.  While it makes sense to avoid either glorifying suicide or condemning those who attempt it, students may interpret neutrality as dismissiveness or even callousness (consider a group of students who wants to build a memorial at school but are denied).  It is a delicate and imperfect process of validating students who want to honor their classmate, curbing copycat behavior, and efficiently restoring normalcy to the school.

Being on a team is indispensable

I’ve previously blogged about the importance of co-interns.  Whether you are an intern, a counselor, or a supervisor, maximize the support of your coworkers.  They will be able to relate to your experience most closely, as they may be privy to information that you cannot otherwise discuss with loved ones at home.  Notice that someone on your team is struggling?  Make an effort to connect with them outside of work.  A quick text message can be a morale booster or a reminder that he or she is not alone in this challenge.

Teachers don’t always understand the fallout

Most teachers don’t have training in mental health, let alone crisis and grief counseling.  Find opportunities to educate faculty and staff on what their students are experiencing---and the fact that every student will react differently (and that those reactions may change over time).  Grief is not a linear process. 

It doesn’t matter how well students knew the deceased

While a close relationship will influence a student’s response to a classmate’s suicide, it’s only one factor. Everyone has a grief history, and death could trigger past feelings of loss.  For students who haven’t experienced death, this encounter with mortality takes on a different significance.  Could this happen to me?  What if one of my friends dies?  Some students are “on the radar” for requiring outreach (close friends or those with depression), but any student can need you.  Send the message that counseling is for everyone.

Teachers need help too

Open your doors to faculty and be ready to refer them for extra help. Like students, they may be feeling any number of emotions. Guilt is a big one, as teachers might blame themselves for missing warning signs, or for contributing to the student’s mental state (Was my feedback on that project too harsh? Maybe I shouldn’t have been so tough).

Flexibility is key

An established school crisis plan is a must.  Realistically, no amount of preplanning can fully prepare a school for tragedy, and every situation will have its own needs that will surface along the way.  Remain flexible, conscientious, and creative throughout the postvention process.

Teach and practice self-care

If you are a supervisor, a crisis is the opportune time to encourage and model self-care for your junior clinicians.  Emotional exhaustion will likely ensue, and if left unchecked, may compromise your clients’ wellness (and your own).  More than ever, crisis is the time to nurture yourself.  I am so grateful that my supervisor emphasized this. I don’t think I truly understood the gravity of self-care until this experience.

Crisis is an opportunity for future prevention

As in most aspects of life, we learn through experience.  When a crisis occurs, it’s natural to question what we could have done to prevent it.  There is a silver lining, however.  After braving the postvention process, we now have more insight into what gaps exist in our prevention and assessment strategies.  If you’re faced with a suicide crisis at your school, realize that you are now armed with more knowledge regarding what your students need from you and from the greater school system. Pause, reflect, and then go advocate.
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Christine Hennigan Paone is a counselor in training at Monmouth University as well as an aspiring counselor educator.  Her research interests include creativity in counseling, multicultural career counseling, and pedagogy.

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