As Executive Director of Response Crisis Center, I’ve always been proud of my center’s capacity to respond to community needs — thus, our name: RESPONSE. However, our ability to respond to the complex needs of one our county’s 72 school districts was tested this past November when we learned of the second of two student suicides from one high school within a three week period.
Following the second suicide, the district angered the community through several missteps. For example, they held a school-wide assembly focused on bullying which left children feeling blamed and confused. Response’s Training Coordinator, a parent in the school district, reached out to administrative and mental health staff to advise them of our experience in postvention work. What ensued was the most challenging and rewarding six weeks of my career.
We implemented a plan that focused on the emotional needs of the children in the high school — and the middle school. In the high school we met in small groups in the library. In the middle school, we went into classrooms. In this way we covered each grade level during four periods and seven days. After a brief trigger warning and explanation about our purpose for being there, we asked the students to introduce themselves and, if comfortable, talk about how they had been impacted by the suicides. In the middle school we structured this activity through sentence completion (either “Suicide makes me feel____” or “What I want to know about suicide is____”). We then agreed on some basic ground rules, discussed grief and loss, and introduced a safety plan. We adopted a brainstorming approach to worksheets we created and distributed among the students, emphasizing that sharing information on the worksheets was optional.
The safety plan has broad utility. In this context it became the vehicle for discussing many issues; and the students came away with tools that could be used to help themselves, a friend or family member. Each of its six steps offered myriad experiential learning opportunities. As students discussed their own triggers, they began to see connections between their thoughts, feelings and behavior. We challenged them to think broadly about coping skills — their strengths, passions, dreams and hopes, what they are good at, what they enjoy. This probably was the most empowering activity and there was a high level of sharing. Exploring how people or places can distract or soothe us also evoked good sharing. Next we talked about trust and the risks involved with revealing personal, sometimes painful information; and how important it is that what is shared be respected and protected. This led to discussing the pitfalls of exposing the deeply personal on social media. Finally, we helped the students envision and broaden their circle of support, providing contact information on the worksheets for the crisis hotline, crisis chat and other resources. We also introduced the importance of environment to mental and physical health, both in terms of what exists and what might need to be removed.
We also collaborated with other community agencies in presentations to the civic association and in meetings with parents. We conducted a half-day training for the school district’s mental health and administrative staff with an ambitious agenda. It focused on helping them think through next steps and develop short and long term goals and plans. We began the training as we did with the students, by asking them to share how they had been impacted by the two suicides and were surprised by how devastating the impact was on the entire staff. Many experienced PTSD-like symptoms. They were still in shock and reliving their interactions with the two students to try to uncover clues to how and why this happened. Several had been deeply involved with the students and their families and felt a great sense of responsibility, burden and failure. Many felt blamed by the community. One hopeful note, however, was that the training gave them all an opportunity to thank each other for their support and how they had pulled together as a team. Although this part of the training took longer than anticipated, it was clear it needed to happen.
As we move forward in this new year, we will continue to partner with this and other school districts, operating from the assumption that we are all survivors: we all have experienced loss — too many of us suicide loss — and we all deal in our own ways. We are all also caregivers, tending to the emotional needs of others. Increasingly, schools have become the primary place where kids live their lives, causing the community to expect so much more of them in helping children achieve their fullest potential, academically and socially.
Not letting our own grief interfere with our professional roles is especially difficult for school personnel who often become targets of blame by parents and the community after a suicide. Shouldering that blame only adds to and complicates the overwhelming feelings of loss and sadness we all experience when young people in our care die by suicide. We as crisis centers have a tremendous challenge and opportunity to collaborate with and support the school districts within our communities. Through our recent and ongoing experience, we know we have the ability to respond.
Meryl Cassidy, LMSW is currently Executive Director of Response of Suffolk County, Inc., Assistant Professor in the Human Services Program at Suffolk Community College, and Co-Chair of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Long Island. After receiving her MSW in 1983 from Columbia University, Ms. Cassidy spent the first third of her career developing and managing innovative housing programs for a variety of at-risk populations in Manhattan and Queens. She moved out to Suffolk County where she expanded her focus to include work with at-risk families and youth in clinical and agency settings, school districts, and with the Suffolk County Probation Department. Throughout her career, she has maintained a passion for training other social worker’s and human service professionals, and sees this as a vital part of her role as Executive Director of Response.