Conventional rules don’t apply when communicating about suicide
Between January and April 2014, three George Washington University students died by suicide—two within the same week. The incidents unnerved the institution's campuses in Washington, D.C. Lorraine Voles, GW's vice president of external relations, has directed crisis communications everywhere from the White House to mortgage finance company Fannie Mae during the 2008 financial crisis. But the experiences she gained throughout her 30-plus-year career did not prepare her for the kind of strategies that postvention communications require, including providing psychological support that aids a community's return to normalcy following a death by suicide and limits the risk of additional deaths through suicide contagion.
"We were in new territory," Voles says. "Whenever a student dies, it is a horrible situation, and a student's death by suicide is all the more gut-wrenching. When you're dealing with a cluster of suicides … well, it shook us to our core. I needed to get some outside perspective, because I had never dealt with anything like this before."
The guidance Voles received from colleagues at other universities who had handled such situations came as a surprise. "The first person I spoke with even said, ‘This is going to sound counterintuitive,'" Voles recounts. The advice: No press releases. No universitywide memorial services. Narrow your focus and communicate privately with affected groups—starting with the family and working outward.
"In university life, we try to be as transparent and open as possible. It's the way I was trained to do communications," Voles says. But this was no time for communications as usual.
No matter the cause, a student's death can scar a campus. When a fatal incident occurs, communicating with clarity and care are essential but certainly not easy tasks. Planning and practice are crucial to handling such sensitive situations and developing responses that inform and support the deceased person's family, friends, the campus community, and the institution's various audiences.
"If nothing else, putting together a plan helps cement those relationships across campus that are critical when you're in a crisis," says postvention expert Donn Marshall, associate dean of students and director of counseling, health, and wellness services at Washington's University of Puget Sound.
That's why each September, the postvention team at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts gathers for an annual training exercise. They listen to a guest speaker and run through a tabletop scenario that puts the college's Crisis, Catastrophic Emergency and Postvention Manual into practice. Student government leaders also attend the postvention training so that they can see the plan in action, understand what the institution must consider when a student death occurs, and act as advocates.
"When you're in a postvention situation, you're always going to be dealing with difficult circumstances," says Cristal Steuer, a senior strategist at TVP Communications who served as associate director of national media relations at Holy Cross until July 2016. "When something does happen, it's going to happen fast. Having effective communications among all the offices involved in postvention means knowing what each person does and how you're going to interact with that person."
Getting everyone in a room to discuss how each department would handle a certain scenario helps people think through their part and see how it fits into the overall plan. The more you practice, the more prepared you are to communicate effectively, Steuer says.
A series of student deaths by suicide in the 1980s prompted Holy Cross to seek expert help in developing its plan, which is periodically reviewed and updated. The terminology Holy Cross uses is important and intentional. The word postvention typically applies to intervention efforts after a death by suicide. Holy Cross, however, uses the term regardless of a person's cause of death, because the loss of a community member is always considered a crisis. In all cases, Steuer says, "it's important to reduce emotionality on campus and avoid institutionalizing grief. The ultimate goal is to restore the campus to its pre-catastrophic state."
The toll that the news of student deaths can have on a community is one of the considerations that led Appalachian State University to revamp its policy for communicating about such occurrences. During the 2014–15 academic year, the North Carolina campus was preparing a student death protocol—a requirement of a suicide prevention grant awarded by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Nine students died that year, some by suicide. The existing procedures called for notifying the campus about each incident. But the growing number of announcements unsettled the campus, worried the university community, and spurred speculation as well as media attention.
"We were concerned about the residual impact of the messages students were receiving. We were concerned about contagion," says Dean of Students J.J. Brown. "Students were jumping to conclusions and struggling with their emotions about the deaths."
Informed by these experiences, Appalachian now takes a concentric circle approach to communicating about student deaths, with the dean of students' office taking the lead in identifying and contacting affected people and affinity groups. Notifications about a student death are sent campuswide only when the campus faces an ongoing threat. No campus official or message will confirm or discuss a student's cause of death. That is the domain of law enforcement authorities or a medical examiner. The prime focuses are respecting the family and friends of the deceased and caring for the community by publicizing the availability of counseling resources and encouraging students, faculty, and staff to use them.
In addition to laying out processes for a variety of scenarios, Appalachian's protocol contains media guidelines, which include restrictions that also apply to the campus's student journalists.
"There was some concern about the guidelines appearing heavy-handed," says Megan Hayes, director of university communications. "We had many discussions about them and ultimately decided that we needed to take care of the campus community."
Voles scheduled a meeting with the staff of GW's independent student newspaper soon after she was introduced to postvention by her peers, Student Affairs colleagues, and experts at the Jed Foundation, a New York–based nonprofit that works to protect the emotional health of college and university students and prevent suicide among this population.
"I wanted to lay out the philosophy behind what we would be doing," Voles says, "so they understood that this was not some sort of cold-hearted reaction or worse, that we were trying to hide something. We were sensitive to the fact that they were dealing with the trauma too." She connected The GW Hatchet's staff with resources to learn more about postvention and protocols for reporting on suicide.
"There are a number of tensions in communicating about suicide," says Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the Jed Foundation. "A natural inclination in reporting is to make something emotionally compelling, but we want [the media and communicators] to do the opposite: Be as undramatic and nonspecific as possible, but not so much that it looks like you're trying to cover something up."
Schwartz notes that the media have become more responsible in this area in recent years, particularly since the creation of the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, which were developed in collaboration with professional organizations such as the Associated Press Managing Editors and the Radio Television Digital News Association. "The journalistic community gets that there is a communal responsibility, that they can impact the health and safety of a community—positively or negatively—by the way they do their work," Schwartz says.
At Holy Cross, Steuer and her colleagues would meet with the college newspaper's staff a couple of times a year to build relationships, including a session at the beginning of the academic year introducing the media relations office as a resource for the student journalists.
"We treat them as we would any media outlet," Steuer says. "And as with any other outlet, you want to develop those connections in advance so that you don't have to worry about trying to build them when you're in crisis mode."
Relationships with campus colleagues who are on the front line of student death notifications are also important. Whether their division or office is called student affairs, student life, student development, or the dean of students, these are the staff members responsible for communicating with and caring for the family and friends of a deceased student. Understanding how university communications can support the work of student affairs staff members can help ease an already difficult situation.
Prior to 2014, Voles' team had a solid working relationship with student affairs. But when confronted with a potential suicide cluster and mounting concerns about the risk of further suicide contagion, "we realized how much we needed each other," Voles says. They brought in experts and changed their protocol for communicating about student deaths. "We learned so much through that process, and our staffs now work so much better together on so many issues."
In the past several months, communicators at the Georgia Institute of Technology have been working toward a similar result as they update and formalize a new protocol. The deaths of several students from one of Georgia Tech's colleges early in 2016 hastened the need to review and improve the existing outline. Michael Hagearty, director of campus communications and special events, convened Tech's Communicators Council as well as representatives from student life and the campus counseling center to identify gaps and create a clear process and structure for communicating about student deaths.
"Our aim is not to be too prescriptive," Hagearty says, describing the plan he and his colleagues hope to introduce by fall 2016. "We want to provide direction yet give people space to deal with the unique and complex circumstances that come with each case."
Why? When students die by suicide, the risk for contagion often lies in the details.
"You don't want to stigmatize someone who died by suicide, but you also don't want to memorialize them in ways that make them seem heroic or that make it seem like death solved their problems," says the Jed Foundation's Schwartz. "Focus on messages that communicate mental health resources and encourage people to seek help, because getting treatment helps. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem."
The Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide were developed in collaboration with organizations including the Associated Press Managing Editors, National Press Photographers Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, and The Poynter Institute.
The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention's "Framework for Successful Messaging" helps organizations develop public messages around suicide that are strategic, safe, positive, and make use of relevant guidelines and best practices. Public messaging about suicide can increase risk among vulnerable individuals, but when done right, it can encourage actions that promote healthy behaviors and help prevent suicide.
College of the Holy Cross (Massachusetts): Crisis, Catastrophic Emergency and Postvention Manual
Pacific University (Oregon): Death in the University Family Communication Procedures
Higher Education Mental Health Alliance: Postvention Guide
Review more policies in the CASE Library's crisis communications sample collection.
Some colleges and universities hold annual memorial services to honor students and other campus community members who have died in the past year. Here are two poignant examples of how campuses say goodbye:
Each fall at Appalachian State University, the campus community gathers to remember every student who has died since 1990. Their names, which are engraved on a memorial board in the North Carolina institution's administration building, are read aloud during the annual student memorial program. Family members may read a statement or submit one if they cannot attend. "Families who have lost a student have told us that having someone recite their loved one's name aloud each year means the world to them," says J.J. Brown, the university's dean of students.
"When the Whistle Blows" has been a tradition at the Georgia Institute of Technology since 2001. The event's name comes from a steam whistle—a campus fixture that dates back to the late 1800s. The spring ceremony begins with a procession led by a bagpiper and the Ramblin' Wreck, a 1930 Model A Ford that is a treasured Tech symbol. Families of the deceased follow, escorted by members of the campus's ROTC units. The university president speaks during the gathering outside Tech Tower, and the name of each student, faculty, or staff member who died in the previous calendar year is announced. Family representatives light a candle on behalf of their loved one, and the whistle blows once for each person. A final blast commemorates every member of the university family who has died. Each family receives a custom-made commemorative whistle inscribed with the name of their loved one.
In observance of World Suicide Prevention Day on Sept. 10, 2015, the University of Michigan's Snapchat account—uofmichigan—published a story (see select slides above) to bring hope to students who may be hurting and encourage people to use the campus's mental health resources. Viewers were asked to snap back supportive messages. Many of the institution's nearly 10,000 followers did, and the notes were featured in a follow-up story. One week later, Michigan presented "Send Silence Packing," a Snapchat story about a student-sponsored event that displayed 1,100 backpacks—many accompanied by personal accounts from people who had lost friends or family to suicide—to represent the number of U.S. college students who die this way each year.
"We tailor our Snapchat stories for the audience that we know is consuming them," says Director of Social Media Nikki Sunstrum. "Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age individuals [in the U.S.]. What better way to reach them about it than through Snapchat?"
Snapchat allows people to send messages that disappear within seconds and compile image-based stories that last up to 24 hours. Brands have flocked to Snapchat, which now has more than 150 million daily active users-10 million more than Twitter. Since the Michigan institution launched its Snapchat account in February 2014, Sunstrum has focused on making strategic use of the platform. "We've never treated it as the shiny thing in the stratosphere," Sunstrum says. "Snapchat gives you the opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with your demographic. It's an excellent platform to do fun stuff, but once you capture that audience, it would be a missed opportunity not to give them content that affects and informs them."
Theresa Walker is a senior editor at Currents, where she covers the marketing and communications beat.
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