Responding To A Student Death

The CAPS office houses a Crisis Response Team that focuses on the mental health needs of students and offers guidance to staff and faculty in times of crisis or trauma. The multi-disciplinary team approach to campus responses is based on Critical Incident Stress Management theory, best-practice standards, and experience. Interventions are tailored to meet the needs of students.

Student Death

The death of a student will often affect people across the university community. On campus, the student’s friends, peers, educators, and staff that knew the student often feel the loss of a student most acutely. Here, we provide information on how the Crisis Response Team at CAPS can serve to consult with you and develop an intervention plan, as needed, ways in which educators can help support their students, and common signs of stress following the death of a student.

Response Team Intervention

As a faculty or staff member, you are always welcome to call us and consult about responding to a student’s death. In some cases, we may conclude that a formal intervention by mental health professionals at CAPS is appropriate. Following are brief descriptions of the three most often used group interventions in the case of a student’s passing. We strongly recommend that attendance at any intervention be on a voluntary basis. A list of questions are included to help us, in coordination with you, make an informed decision as to which type of intervention would be most appropriate for your students.

Intervention Timing Duration of Intervention Target Group Potential Goal
Briefing: As needed; On-going and post-event; may be repeated as needed 30 – 60 minutes Heterogeneous large or small groups Information, control rumors, reduces acute distress, increase cohesion, and facilitate resilience, screening and triage.
Defusing: On-going events and post-events (less than or equal to 12 hours) 1 hour or more, depending on the size of the group Small homogeneous groups Stabilization, ventilation, reduces acute distress, screening, and information, increase cohesion, and facilitate resilience.
Debriefing: Post-event; ~1-10 days for acute incidents, ~3-4 weeks post-disaster recovery phase 2 hours or more, depending on the size of the group Small homogeneous groups with equal trauma exposure (e.g., workgroups, emergency services, military) Increase cohesion, ventilation, information, and normalization, reduce acute distress, facilitate resilience, screening and triage. Follow-up essential.

Tips for Educators

The death of a student, whether sudden or foreseen, can be challenging on an emotional level and can also pose new challenges for educators of the student’s peers. Many students may hope or expect to talk about what happened. The following set of recommendations is meant to offer guidance for educators to help themselves and students grieve and heal.

  1. Give yourself time to reflect on the event, how you are feeling, and how others might be feeling.
  2. Become as well informed as possible about the facts and prepare your response.
  3. Be aware that there is no “right” way to grieve or mourn. You can share your own response and normalize and encourage respect for variations of grieving.
  4. Consider providing students with copies of "What You Can Expect".
  5. Don’t fear asking your students how they are doing. Provide needed time to talk abut the incident and the student’s feelings.
  6. If the death was by suicide, acknowledge the difficulty around "making sense" of the death.
  7. Show appreciation of student’s willingness to talk about their thoughts and feelings and remind them about resources on campus.
  8. Return the class to the normal routine as soon as appropriate.
  9. Offer a referral to CAPS to any student you may be concerned about.
  10. Contact CAPS as needed for additional support and consultation.

"Tips for Educators" Adapted from: Central Michigan University Crisis / Emergency Information for Faculty and George Washington University Counseling Center