Left Unsupported in Our Grief

When I heard about my colleague at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2) committing suicide, I couldn't have imagined the roller coaster ride I was going to experience. The gut-wrenching twists, turns and loops are frightening but expected. Besides, you're safely strapped in. What made this ride terrifying was that I was riding this emotional roller coaster without a harness.

The administration at SP2 allowed its entire school to ride through a nightmare without proper safety precautions. In the aftermath of this catastrophic event, SP2 students were left to cope alone with their grief. The lack of support from the SP2 administration left my colleagues and me questioning whether the administration adequately understood the severity and the impact of such a tragic event.

The breakdown in communication became evident when one of my professors addressed Alice Wiley's suicide for the first time in class on Feb. 19, almost two months after it happened. This was only done after my professor received an email detailing Alice's death and encouraged having it addressed in class.

This email wasn't only sent extremely late, but it wasn't sent to all faculty members. Some professors learned of the news from their students, as demonstrated by an article published on The Huffington Post on March 27. I witnessed the same occurrence in one of my classes. The administration shouldn't have shifted responsibility to its students in this way.

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) was not properly informed of our colleague's suicide either and therefore not adequately prepared to address SP2 students' needs for grief counseling. "I went to CAPS two weeks after the semester began and they didn't know about Alice." This was the experience of a first-year student at SP2.

The SP2 administration held no school meetings or assemblies and provided little support for SP2 students following Alice's memorial. The lack of open communication about her suicide has
left students feeling confused and angry.

Ambivalence in taking any action on the part of the SP2 administration conveyed a sense of apathy. Questions about whether the administration understood what Social Work entailed rose quickly among students. Students dedicating their lives to supporting others were left unaided by those who have the same mission. In a school full of social workers, this doesn't feel right.

The mission of a social worker is to empower those in need. Social workers are trained to attend to a person's needs within their surroundings to help them successfully navigate their environment. The SP2 administration appeared to have failed in safeguarding this sacred mission.

On a positive note, SP2 student outrage prompted action from the SP2 administration. Weekly mindfulness groups have been provided for SP2 students as well as scheduled talks about stress management. This is a prime example of how social workers are social change agents. But would this sort of action have taken place in another school where students aren't as trained in handling these kinds of situations?

I would urge the administration in each school to develop policies and plans to adequately manage an event like a student's suicide. Preemptively developing a plan of action would effectively attend to students' needs and properly support them through their bereavement.

Open communication with those affected is an effective way to ensure that feelings and reactions are noticed and validated. I don't condone having every single detail of the event made public. The victim has a right to dignity and the family's wishes deserve to be respected. But silence about the issue will not provide those affected with sufficient closure.

Although any student's death is tragic, the horrific nature of suicide evokes intense emotional reaction and triggers reflection within a community which deserves special attention.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.