Candle being lit at Strawberry Fields, Central Park, New York. (Steven Weinberg, Stone photo/Getty Images / October 18, 2011)

For schools reeling in the aftermath of a student's suicide, some mental health experts say that paying tribute to the teen with candlelight vigils, hallway locker memorials and all-school assemblies may do more harm than good.

Though school officials are well-intentioned, "the first goal after a student suicide should be eliminating the contagion that can lead to copycat suicides," says Darcy Haag Granello, professor of counselor education at Ohio State University and co-author of "Suicide, Self-Injury, and Violence in the Schools: Assessment, Prevention and Intervention Strategies" (Wiley).

She cites an example of a "contagion" at a high school where, after one of the most popular boys at the school died by suicide, a flurry of emotion-packed memorials were organized by students and staff members. A month later, a second boy had died by suicide, and devastated school officials turned to Granello for help.

"This second student, who was at-risk and vulnerable, had watched his classmates at all the memorials for the first boy and thought, 'I wonder what they'd say about me?' Schools need to … let students know that suicide is not glamorous, but also give support to the grieving."

Concerned that school officials nationwide are often overwhelmed and unprepared to deal with a student's suicide, researchers at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla., developed the Youth Suicide Prevention School-Based Guide. Stephen Roggenbaum, a research assistant at the university, says the guide provides a framework for school officials to assess their existing suicide prevention efforts.

"Teachers and administrators have our youth for one-third of their day — the seven to eight hours that students spend at school," Roggenbaum says. "Schools are already asked to do so much with (fewer) resources, and many administrators don't have the time to scour the literature on youth suicide themselves. We've tried to fill that void."

Though many mental health experts suggest that schools need to improve their response to and prevention of youth suicides, some express optimism that teachers and administrators are now recognizing that they are on the front lines when it comes to their students' mental health.

"From a historic perspective, 20 years ago schools thought the way to talk to students about suicide was during a large assembly, which was actually not helpful at all in identifying who might be at risk of suicide," says Dr. Nancy Rappaport, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and the author of the memoir "In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide" (Basic Books).

Rappaport advocates the practice of incorporating mental health screenings into routine adolescent health care — for example, the program TeenScreen, a nonprofit health initiative developed by Columbia University's National Center for Mental Health Checkups, which is used by more than 1,500 primary care providers and almost 600 schools and community-based sites (teenscreen.org).

"If you identify and treat depression, you decrease the suicide rate," Rappaport says. "Any time a school community loses a student to suicide, it's heartbreaking. … There is nothing worse."

sunday@tribune.com



Pop quiz!



Q: What breed of dog has won the most Best of Show honors at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show?

A: Wire fox terrier, with 13. Second place goes to the Scottish Terrier, with 8.

Source: westminsterkennelclub.org