Supporting students after self-harm or suicide attempts

The recent lockdown in Victoria has once again shone a light on mental health issues for students, particularly secondary students and students who identify as LGBTIQA+.

A recent University of Melbourne study (COVID-19 Unmasked Report 2) on the impact of the second lockdown of 2020 revealed that the mental health of Victorian children was more heavily impacted than children in other states. There was a marked increase of 21 per cent in high-to-very-high depression symptoms reported to doctors/schools in children ages 12-18.

Young people who identify as LGBTIQA+ continue to experience mental health issues at a higher rate than other young people. As mentioned in our article on conversion practices and lessons for schools, the LGBTIQA+ Health Australia 2021 Snapshot uncovered some alarming statistics, revealing little improvement in the health of LGBTIQA+ people since 2016 equivalent study.[1]

As well as promoting acceptance of diversity in schools, schools also need to provide a safe place for students to return to after incidents; both are powerful tools to help improve the mental health of young people.

What are the obligations on schools when that increased depression takes the form of self-harm or suicide?

Duty of Care

Schools owe a non-delegable duty of care to their students to take reasonable measures in the circumstances to protect students from risks of harm that are reasonably foreseeable. The duty of care and standard of ‘reasonable measures’ do not diminish during periods of remote learning.

While many of our school clients report they cope well initially in a crisis of self-harm or suicide attempt, some lack the supports, documentation and structures to allow for a safe and supported return to school with an inclusive approach.

Moores recommend schools consider implementing the two key documents to equip staff to manage incidents and promote the well-being of students returning to campus after incidents:

  1. Safety management plan.
  2. Return to school plan.

1. Safety Management Plan

A safety management plan equips staff to respond to possible risks and threats of harm by reducing stigma around mental illness and developing helpful coping strategies for students. It equips schools with robust plans in the event a student has attempted to self-harm at school, experiences suicidal ideation or something equally adverse, such as a sexual assault, has occurred off campus. 

A safety management plan outlines steps staff need to take to respond to such incidents in real time. It envisages staff will undertake drills to ensure they are able to respond in a timely and calm fashion to any incidents occurring on campus.

It creates processes that allow staff to know what to do, who to turn to, what their obligations are in terms of documenting events and providing vital information to the investigating officers. Having a safety management plan framework also creates a basis for an individual management plan for students. This is a critically important step in ensuring the school meets its duty of care obligations for at risk students.

2. Return to School Plan

A return to school plan is relevant when a student who has previously attempted suicide, experienced loss, been diagnosed with a serious illness or been hospitalised for their mental illness wants to return to school.

The aim of the return to school plan is to maximise the social and emotional outcomes for students returning to campus by providing an engaging, safe and supportive learning environment for the student.

The return to school plan provides checklists and risk assessments to ensure the school is meeting its duty of care obligations and the student is not a risk to themselves or to others. It discusses whether additional reasonable adjustments are necessary and identifies important matters that are relevant in such situations. It can support the student to identify strategies they would like to be put in place when returning to school after a complex health concern.

If the student’s mental health is being impacted by either identifying as LGBTIQA+ or experiences they are having as a result of identifying as LGBTIQA+, then a return to school plan should provide specific supports to accommodate this.  This does not mean the student’s gender identification needs to be broadcast (a surprisingly common well-meaning bungle), rather that they unique needs will need to be considered.  This could involve avoidance of, or changes to, triggering activities (for example boy/girl events such as formals or dancing class, or sports which require getting changed in front of others).

It is important to recognise that the student, parents, external professionals and key internal staff should all be involved in development of the plan.  Too often, students are “cleared” to return to school by an external professional without the school having adequate input.  This leaves the student and school vulnerable.

Ideally, the student, school and parents will all have obligations under the plan, and there should be consequences for failing to meet those obligations, even if the consequence is simply, for example, withdrawal to a safe space on the part of the student in the event of a panic attack.

Lastly, plans need to be regularly reviewed and should have some measures of success embedded.  Many students who have a form of mental illness will also meet the definition of having a disability, and, as such, the school will have the obligation to make reasonable adjustments to support the student.

How we can help

If your school would like to implement a Safety Management Plan or a Return to School Plan, please do not hesitate to contact us. Our expert team can also point you in the direction of leading industry resources.

[1] Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTIQ+ people, LGBTIQ+ Health Australia, (April 2021)