It can take many months for an inquest (or fatal accident inquiry in Scotland) to be held and in many cases unexplained deaths are not given a verdict of suicide.
Schools and authorities often have to act on whether an unexplained death is being treated as suicide.
How to proceed when the verdict is unknown
In some cases, where there is an ongoing investigation or where the family does not want the cause of death to be disclosed (or reported as suicide), it can be challenging for a school to decide how to proceed.
In this situation, schools should:
- State that the nature and cause of death are still being determined and that additional information will be forthcoming.
- Acknowledge that there are rumours (which are often inaccurate) and remind students that these can be deeply hurtful, distressing and unfair to the deceased person, their family and friends.
If there is an ongoing investigation, schools should check with local police before speaking about the death with students who may need to be interviewed by the authorities.
If the family does not want the nature or cause of death to be disclosed
While the fact that someone has died may be disclosed immediately, information about the nature and cause of death should not be disclosed until the family has been consulted. If the death has been declared a suicide but the family does not want this disclosed, someone from the school who has a good relationship with the family should contact them. They should explain that students are already talking about the death and that having adults in the school community talk to students about suicide and its causes can help keep students safe.
If the family refuses to permit disclosure, schools can simply state that the family has requested that information is not shared. Schools can still take the opportunity to acknowledge rumours about suicide and to address the topic of suicide in a responsible way to assist other young people who may be depressed or suicidal.
Step by Step can support schools with these communications.
In addition, it is suggested that mental health professionals should be working alongside the school in helping to meet the immediate counselling needs of affected students.