Graduate student suicide postvention plans can help the entire campus community

When suicide prevention plans aren’t enough, postvention can help minimise the impact on students, faculty and staff write Susanna Harris and Robert Cramer 

五月 17, 2020

Recent studies have found that about 7 to 10 per cent of graduate students have reported experiencing suicidal ideations within the past two weeks, and approximately one in 50 students have reported having made a suicide plan. With the loss of structure and support systems during the global pandemic, and in the face of an increasingly uncertain and bleak immediate future, today’s students are at an even higher risk for mental health issues.

As a group with a unique set of needs, graduate students are a differentiated part of the higher education population and we must keep this in mind when designing student support programmes.

While continuing efforts to prevent as many suicides as possible, we must prepare for the potential for a rise in suicide during this crisis. Only through creating postvention plans now can we address these crises and help graduate students cope as best as possible.

What is postvention?

As laid out by the National Action Alliance on Suicide Prevention, postvention comprises at least one of the following: enabling healing after the loss; reducing the negative impacts of the loss; and/or preventing suicide among exposed persons already at risk.

There is no standard approach to postvention for higher education institutions and a recent review of suicide postvention approaches concluded that the level of research support is weak at best. However, certain interventions are generally considered useful: educational information, peer or other support models, mental health services, and/or structured sessions with a trained postvention facilitator. 

Why do we need a plan in advance?

Persons left in the wake of a suicide attempt or death may face negative outcomes themselves, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and their own risk of suicidal behaviour. For every suicide loss, it is estimated that 135 people are measurably affected by the tragedy; effects ripple out far past immediate connections, and student suicides affect classmates, faculty, staff and other people on campus.

These campus community members often suffer from lowered job or academic performance, ultimately decreasing student and employee retention. As institutions assume greater responsibility for the well-being of the student body, postvention infrastructure is needed to mitigate the aftermath of these tragedies. 

A plan for graduate student suicide postvention begins with preparation and establishing a suicide pre/postvention task force. This includes committees that create and maintain suicide pre/postvention plans specific to graduate students. Professionals from mental health, student health, student affairs, residence life, police department, faculty experts, staff liaison, and graduate education should be included on the task force, as well as representatives from student groups. If you need further guidance the Jed Foundation is a good resource.  

Universities should also provide suicide prevention training to enhance campus members’ ability to recognise suicide warning signs, ask questions, and refer students to appropriate resources. Example training programmes include Kognito and QPR. We are unaware of research-supported university campus-specific postvention training. However, programmes such as Connect Training may be a good start.  

To respond to a suicide on campus, the campus community should be educated so that they are familiar with any negative reactions to a suicide loss (for example, grief), opportunities for long-term growth (such as post-traumatic growth), and the value of local and national resources.

Licensed mental health providers specialising in postvention can support affected persons and may be involved in the preparation team.

Any media coverage should follow suicide media guidelines developed by a consortium of expert organisations. Irresponsible media coverage can promote stigma or increase risk of suicide contagion.

If you’re having trouble knowing where to start, the community support meetings approach can be implemented quickly to support graduate students after any tragic event. These meetings bring together campus leaders to communicate timely information through conversation with students and staff. Generally, two to four facilitators (trained mental health or student services personnel) provide the structured session for up to 80 participants that follow a general 12-step structure that includes sharing stories and discussing “what ifs”. 

Prepare for the worst and aim for the best. Our world is facing one of the most unpredictable events of our lifetimes, but we can prepare for the possible fallout of these circumstances. Through suicide prevention education and mental health programmes, we can reduce the number of graduate student deaths.

And by learning about suicide postvention and creating action plans for when they are needed, we can support survivors of these crises when the prevention measures aren’t enough.

Susanna Harris recently completed her PhD in microbiology and immunology at UNC of Chapel Hill. She is the founder and CEO of PhD Balance, a mental health awareness community for graduate students.

Robert Cramer is associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

More resources:

Although only the first of the below resources applies to the postsecondary setting, all contain useful materials for creating effective postvention plans for college campuses.

Postvention: A guide for responses to suicide on college campuses

After a suicide: A toolkit for schools (2nd edition)

Suicide in schools: A practitioner’s guide to multi-level prevention, assessment, intervention, and postvention 

If you’re having suicidal thoughts or feel you need to talk to someone, a free helpline is available round the clock in the UK on 116123, or you can email In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. You can also text 741741 to “Home”. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at



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