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Protocol for Announcing Student Deaths

Question: 

Dear Deans,

Hi Deans, 

Recent discussions with my colleagues have made me aware that announcements of student's death by potential suicide report the cause of death in a vague way.  Soon after or in the same email, the student population gets a message about getting help if we are in distress which would imply that it was a suicide.

I have questions about this process:

  1. Are some of these messages sent out before the coroner can determine a cause of death?
  2. Is there a legal restriction on what can be said about a student's death?  Is saying it is suicide considered defamation?
  3. Is it a matter of being respectful in death and/or respecting the family of the deceased to avoid hard truths?
  4. Does it cause discomfort to some people to say it was suicide?

These are just my thoughts.

Sincerely,

Wondering about Protocol


Response:

Dear Wondering about Protocol,

Thank you for asking about this important issue.  I consulted with my Cornell Health colleagues for guidance and clarification on Cornell’s policy. 

The death of any student is troubling, regardless of the cause.  Often announcements are necessarily vague due to a variety of reasons, including confidentiality protections, unknown cause of death, and honoring the wishes of family members.  Ultimately, however, grief centers on the hole that is left by the person’s absence more than the details of the actual cause.

The death of a community member can result in significant grief or trauma, and it can be difficult to anticipate who is hit especially hard by the news. Each of us has many connections to others through our fields, departments, research groups, social networks, and more. Therefore, Cornell shares support resources broadly across campus whenever a loss has occurred. The inclusion of resources for support in a death announcement does not signal that the cause of death was suicide. 

Below are responses to your specific questions.

  1. Are some of these messages sent out before the coroner can determine a cause of death? Yes.  A coroner’s determination of the cause of death can take several months. Because the university feels it is important to acknowledge the fact that a death has occurred as soon as possible, often the announcement is made before the coroner’s ruling has been made.
  2. Is there a legal restriction on what can be said about a student's death?  It depends on the circumstances. Beyond confidentiality protections, there are ethical and family wishes to consider as well as “best practices” in how toshare information about a death without causing increased risk or distress to the well-being of others in the community. 
  3. Is it a matter of being respectful in death and/or respecting the family of the deceased to avoid hard truths? The death of a loved one, by any cause, is a private matter. If a family decides it would like to share the cause of death, then the university would take that into consideration. Energy behind several important suicide prevention programs (e.g., the Jed Foundation) has come from families who have lost a loved one to suicide. However, other families choose different avenues of healing and may or may not want to engage with others on the topic.
  4. Does it cause discomfort to some people to say it was suicide? 
    Discussing death from any cause is uncomfortable for many. Cornell’s protocol for announcing a student death is evidence-based to reduce the risk of a “contagion effect.” (See the media guidelines for reporting suicide deathsfrom the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.) Public conversations about suicide are less effective in the immediate aftermath when some people may feel especially vulnerable. Cornell Health’s Skorton Center for Health Initiatives has two “Notice & Respond”  bystander intervention programs (Assisting Students in Distress and Friend2Friend) that address suicide prevention.  The programs prepare students, staff, and faculty to recognize the signs of emotional distress (from stress to distress to suicidal thinking) and learn what to say or do to support the distressed person. The more we know how to support one another, the greater our ability to prevent losses due to suicide.

I hope you find this helpful and would be happy to talk with you some more.  Please feel free to let me know if you have any additional questions or concerns.  I appreciate the opportunity to answer these difficult questions for you.

All the best,

Janna Lamey

Janna Lamey
Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Life