New resource to help veterinary college students cope after a suicide

2019-11-21

A new resource developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the AVMA and the AAVMC offers resources and advice for colleges of veterinary medicine when a student dies by suicide.

weerapat1003/stock.adobe.com(Editor's note: This article includes discussion of suicide and mental health issues. If you're experiencing feelings of depression or suicidal ideation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK; 800-273-8255; suicidepreventionlifeline.org). It's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No matter what problems you are dealing with, people on the other end of the line will help you find a reason to keep living.)

When a student dies by suicide, veterinary schools may not have a firm plan in place for how to manage the situation. The teams at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the AVMA and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges hope a new resource will help.

Veterinary mental health resource list

Collected in June this year, this national and state-by-state list of resources for veterinary practices and professionals for mental health and suicide prevention may be helpful to you.

“After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Colleges of Veterinary Medicine,” a 47-page PDF, offers a plan of action, tools and further resources. Steps for proactive planning, detailed checklists and suggestions for conducting sensitive conversations are all included. Here's a sampling of the five major steps covered in the extensive resource with snippets of advice covered in far more depth in the longer document:

• Get the facts first. “In some cases, the family learns of the suicide first and informs someone at the institution, such as the associate dean for student affairs; in other cases, the death of a student comes to light after the student does not attend class or after receiving a phone call from local authorities, emergency personnel or others. Depending on the situation, facts may be obtained or clarified by contacting the coroner, medical examiner's office or local law enforcement. The cause of death should not be disseminated without first speaking with the family about their preferences.”

• Informing the emergency contact person/family. “First, find out with whom you are speaking and if not the student's family member, then ask if there is a family member with whom you should speak. Then, ask how members of the college can assist, and discuss the family's preference regarding what information is provided to the college community. The emergency contact person/family member may ask what happened. Sometimes it is not clear early on if the death was by suicide or if the death was accidental. Starting by asking what they have heard or what they understand about what happened may be helpful. Be careful about sticking to the known facts and avoiding any conjecture.”

• Sharing the news. “When communicating about suicide, do not use the outdated phrase (an offensive term to some) ‘committed suicide.' Rather, use terms such as ‘died by suicide,' ‘took their life' or ‘killed themselves.' … It is critically important for steps to be taken to ensure that suicide contagion risk is minimized to every extent possible. Contagion risk is heightened when a vulnerable individual is exposed to sensationalized communication about the suicide or when the deceased's manner of death or life is portrayed in an idealized manner. The risk of suicide contagion is mitigated by including support and mental health resources in several communications, and ensuring that every communication following the death is vetted.”

• Helping students cope. “It may be helpful to reach out to students to help them process their emotions, and to better identify those who may need additional support. Mental health professionals can meet with small groups of students to help express feelings and discuss safe coping strategies. Students can be encouraged to use relaxation or mindfulness skills as a way to cope with intense emotions related to the event. Students may need to hear permission from leadership, faculty and staff to engage in healthy activities that will help them feel better and to take their mind off the stressful situation, as well as permission to seek help.”

• Memorialization. “Communities often want to memorialize an individual who has died. It can be a challenge to balance meeting the needs of distraught students while preserving the day-to-day activities. It is very important to treat all student deaths with the same basic approach, while giving some special consideration to contagion risk and the unique aspects of suicide loss. The approach for responding to the death of a student from a car accident or cancer should be the same as for a student who dies by suicide. This approach minimizes stigma and reduces the risk of suicide contagion.”

While the advice included in the resource caters to colleges of veterinary medicine, the new resource is included on a page with many other resources on healthcare professional burnout, depression and suicide prevention.