The following article is based on a real-life incident; the name of the pupil has been changed

It was the phone call that no teacher ever wants to receive. It happened on a Sunday evening, just a few days before the end of term.

“I’m calling you as a friend. My neighbour’s son has taken his own life. The ambulance and police are there now and the parents are distraught. It’s Tom. He’s in the sixth form at the school where you teach. I thought you ought to know that this has happened.”

Tom was a bright lad. Popular, strong academically, good at sport and had a leading role in next term’s drama production. Nobody saw this coming.

The devastating news was passed on immediately by the teacher to the head. Despite being an experienced leader he had never confronted such a situation before, and as far as he knew, none of his SLT had either. He knew that suicide in young people was a real concern, and had read somewhere that an average of around two young people take their own life every week. His first question to himself was, ‘What do we do?…’

Prompt, proactive, proportionate

Turning to the internet for guidance and support in the early hours of Monday morning, he came across Samaritans’ Step by Step service, which seemed as though it might be able to help.

He arrived at school early that day. He broke the news to the school’s staff during the Monday morning briefing, but asked that those present keep the news confidential for the moment, until further details were known and a plan could be formulated and agreed by SLT.

Following the briefing, he then rang the LA and chair of governors to inform both of the situation, and then contacted Step by Step for further advice. Within half an hour, the Step by Step administrator had contacted myself. In my capacity as an advisor for the service, I called the headteacher back and offered to visit the school straight away for a meeting, while strongly recommending that the next steps taken by the school be be prompt, proactive and proportionate.

A heavy burden

As a Step by Step advisor, my role is to listen, make constructive suggestions on several fronts and answer numerous questions.

In this instance – how do we break the news to students and when? Who should do it? Should the announcement be made in year group assemblies or smaller tutor groups? Should there be a single written text for teachers to read out, so that the message and information can be kept consistent?

Should a statement be added to the school’s website? What happens if the press start making enquiries? What else do we need to think about at this stage?

My initial recommendation was that if the headteacher was managing the situation in school, a different member of staff ought to liaise with the family – in this case, perhaps the head of sixth form. It is too heavy a burden for the same person to attempt both.

The next priority was to work with students to try to avoid suicide contagion. Research shows that the period immediately following a suicide is critical, and that the risk in adolescence of ‘copycat’ behaviour is all too high – especially among those within social, psychological or geographical proximity to an attempted or completed suicide. Students were therefore ‘triaged’ to ensure that those most deeply affected received support first.

Throughout, I ensured that I was always available at the end of the phone to give further support and guidance. It can be invaluable for the person managing the aftermath to have someone outside of school to whom he or she can offload at any time, while maintaining an ongoing conversation in total confidence.

Getting the message heard

After the school holiday, myself and a Step by Step colleague – both of us active Samaritans helpline listeners and also former headteachers – came in to speak at a staff meeting held on the INSET day of the new term. We also offered to provide confidential, individual support for any teaching or non-teaching staff who had been deeply affected by the death.

A few weeks later, the we then accompanied members of staff in giving assembly talks to all year groups, adjusting the content, message and language used for each so that it was age-appropriate. Some parents asked for a meeting to be held in the school, wanting advice themselves on how to manage discussions with their teenage children.

On this occasion, the school opted to advise parents in writing, while distributing copies of Step by Step’s parental guidance. Had a meeting taken place, both my colleague and I would have have offered to attend.

A change of plan

At the end of term, we both returned to meet with the school’s SLT, assisted with carrying out an honest review of how the incident had been managed and helped make some adjustments to the school’s Critical Incident Plan.

The Plan, like those in so many other schools, colleges and universities, had proved to be not quite specific enough to respond to a death by suspected suicide. A detailed and carefully considered procedure, planned in advance – and hopefully never needed – will be an invaluable investment, should this most tragic of events come to pass.

As a postscript to the above, the sixth form students met to discuss the situation regarding the play in which Tom had been cast. They voted overwhelmingly to carry on with rehearsals, however difficult it may be, and to dedicate the performance to his memory.

When it took place some weeks later, Tom’s parents showed immense courage by attending. As it finished and the dedication was made, there was not a dry eye in the hall. For many, it proved to be an important step along the road towards some sort of healing.

Step by step

Support from Samaritans’ Step by Step service is available free of charge to any school community for as long as it is helpful.

The Service is available to all schools, colleges and academies from primary to sixth form, as well as universities and other HEIs. It also supports youth groups, Guide and Scout groups, sports clubs and other organisations affected by a death through suicide or attempted suicide.

The service can be contacted on 0808 168 2528; Step by Step has also produced a series of free online resources to assist schools in supporting grief and minimising the risk of further suicide, which can be viewed here.

Geoff Rickson is a former headteacher who worked in primary schools in both Cambridgeshire and Devon for three decades before retiring in 2002; he subsequently joined Samaritans as a listening volunteer, and in 2015 joined the Step by Step programme as an advisor