As a principal we often have to deal with the mental health crises of our students. Sometimes they hit painfully close to home. Suicide is something that impacted my family when my sister killed herself at 16. To this day, 20 years later, that event impacts me and my family. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional turmoil that ensued when a student of mine returned from an attempt. In talking to that student upon his/her return the tone I was projecting was one of anger. I quickly realized I needed to shut my mouth and let the counselor take the lead. After a brief reentry meeting we talked to the staff and went over some crisis management steps so we were all on the same page. These 3 protocols are good to review when dealing with a student who has made an attempt on her/his life.
Take the threat seriously and do not leave the child alone. Often we question ourselves whether or not the student is serious about their comment. Sometimes the student making the remarks is one who constantly seeks attention in any number of different ways. This could lead to second guessing because you don’t want to disrupt your day or feed into the child’s attention seeking. Regardless of your personal discomfort you must follow up.
Provide immediate support
Find a private space and talk with the student reassuring him/her that you care about them. This can be emotionally taxing. The student can be in extreme emotional pain and as a principal you aren’t necessarily trained to handle a child in this type of crisis. That’s why it’s important to make sure that you have your school counselor or social worker available and taking the lead.
Two is not only better but necessary
Make sure that there are at least two adults with the student whenever possible. It might be necessary to physically restrain a student or to be a witness. Having two staff members with the student is ideal if a witness is needed for any reason. Two adults ensuring the student is safe until they can be handed them off to professionals or parents will also keep the staff safe.
Supporting students in crisis is one of the most fulfilling roles of the principal. It is also one of the most emotionally draining. Having protocols in place and reviewing them with your staff, prior to a student’s return, helps relieve staff anxiety and get everyone on the same page.
What are other protocols your school implements in this type of crisis? Leave your suggestions in the comment section below.
I'm a Principal and an Entrepreneur. I'm the former owner of a food venture Hustling Hoagies, the author of the children's picture books Detective Dwayne Drake and the Alphabet Thief, Detective Dwayne Drake and The Case of the Mathematical Misfit and the ebook Making it as a Male Model in Michigan. I've worked professionally as a model and commercial actor......