We need to talk about suicide and sudden death
We need to talk about suicide and sudden death
Leila Holmyard

By Leila Holmyard

Over the last few years, especially since the pandemic, we have become aware that schools are increasingly concerned about suicidal ideation and the risk of suicide in their communities. We have received more questions about suicide prevention and response in our workshops and more frequent requests for support from schools seeking to implement policies and prevention programmes.

For me, though, the extent of the concern hit home during interviews for my PhD research on safeguarding, in which the message from interview participants was clear:

'The number one concern is suicidal ideation, followed relatively closely by self harm …
working with young people, we know depression, risk of suicide and self harm is massive.'
Safeguarding Lead, CIS member school in Asia

'I have seen more suicide ideation in the last two years than I have in my career.'
—Counsellor, CIS member school in Africa

Female student

The likelihood within one school of a suicide is small. In my experience, it’s often only when a school community is unfortunate enough to experience this kind of loss that it formalises protocols for the school's response. This means a school's initial response may be developed and implemented in the midst of extreme stress. Ideally, schools take steps in advance to try and be prepared.

A former colleague of mine died in a tragic accident this year, which shocked his current school community. However, the news reverberated worldwide, impacting former colleagues, past students, and friends across continents. The nature of our community can create a ripple effect where people in one school could be greatly impacted by a death in another country, and we may not even know about it.

It is important to remember that while our response to sudden death and suicide may be similar, and indeed, it may not be clear if a death is an accident or suicide, it is vital to consider the heightened risk to teenagers when exposed to suicide. According to the OLLIE Foundation, research shows that young people bereaved by suicide are 65% more likely to attempt suicide compared to those bereaved by natural causes—a phenomenon known as suicide contagion.

We are seeing schools that have been exposed to the risks and trauma associated with sudden death and suicide engaging deeply in preparedness and prevention work, with considerable investment in time and professional development. Some resources we recommend include:

  • RU OK: a charity that provides resources to encourage young people to ask their friends what’s troubling them and seek help with personal difficulties, reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues.
  • LivingWorks safeTALK: a training programme suitable for all community members, including students from age 15, to learn how to recognise signs when someone is thinking about suicide and connect to support them further.
  • Mental Health First Aid: an online training that teaches participants to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses.
  • LivingWorks ASIST: a training programme for school counsellors, safeguarding leads and school leaders to learn how to prevent suicide by providing skilled intervention and developing a safety plan.
  • The OLLIE Foundation Guidance for Educational Settings Following a Sudden Death or Suicide: comprehensive guidance for responding to a sudden death or suicide in a school community, including how to support family, friends, and colleagues in the immediate aftermath and over time.

We realize that these resources are from national contexts and may not fully account for the unique factors impacting international schools: intercultural considerations, transience and mobility, and the specific vulnerabilities of international school students.

As such, we have partnered with the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families and counselling psychologist Dr Rina Bajaj to create a two-day workshop designed especially for international school leaders, counsellors and safeguarding leads. Delivered in person due to the sensitive nature of the topics, this workshop will use case studies to explore a whole school approach to the prevention of self-harm and suicide. It will share leading practices for a school’s response to suicide and how to support students and staff.

Join a CIS Workshop for professional learning around these topics
supporting child protection and safeguarding in schools

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Useful guidance:

  • If you are concerned that someone may be having thoughts of suicide, you may have seen a change in their mood, personality, or behaviour. You might have noticed them:
    • talking or writing about death
    • talking or writing about feeling hopeless or trapped with no way out
    • engaging in dangerous or risk-taking behaviours
    • regularly self-harming
    • increasing their drug and alcohol use
    • withdrawing from family, friends, teachers, or other community members
    • giving away personal possessions or otherwise putting affairs in order
    • having delusions or hallucinations
  • Ask them if they are having thoughts of suicide. It is the most important question you can ask. Asking it will not make them more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
  • Listening helps people know you care. You don’t need to have the answers, show empathy and thank them for confiding in you. Encourage them to get help by speaking to a school counsellor. They may also access free, confidential support from a helpline: https://findahelpline.com/.
  • Do not agree to keep someone’s thoughts of suicide confidential: seek help from others to ensure the person's safety. Share your concerns with your school counsellor or safeguarding lead in accordance with your school’s policy.
  • If someone is at immediate risk of suicide, call the emergency services if it is safe to do so*.

For more suicide crisis support, visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

*In countries where suicide is criminalised, the school should work with the counselling and safeguarding teams to determine the approaches they can take if a student presents with suicidal thoughts or behaviour.



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We need to talk about suicide and sudden death