Impact of Death on Students with Exceptionalities

Children and adolescents with physical, emotional, and cognitive disabilities are at higher risk for depression and suicide than youngsters without disabilities. Suicidal behavior has been noted in children with mental disabilities as well as in children with superior intelligence. Children with exceptionalities may often suffer from feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and low self-esteem, which may increase their vulnerability to suicidal behaviors. In addition, students with disabilities have been found to be disproportionately susceptible to abuse, which in turn may trigger suicidal thoughts and actions.

It is estimated that over 90% of suicidal children and youth have associated, serious psychiatric illnesses that include conduct disorder, depression or bipolar illness, abuse of drugs or alcohol, and psychosis. Depression, in particular, has been found to be a primary risk factor related to suicidal behavior in children and youths. Even though a student may not meet the criteria to receive specific education and/or related services, health, cognitive, and social/emotional difficulties that can be remediated through other school or community-based intervention programs may be identified.

Many studies have confirmed that children and adolescents with depressive disorders are at high risk for suicidal behavior. Depression can be reliably diagnosed in children as young as 6 to 8 years of age. Estimates of the prevalence of depression among children and youths with learning and/or behavioral problems tend to be higher than those cited for the general population. It is recommended that children who are evaluated for any type of psychiatric disorder should also be evaluated for depression and suicidal tendencies. These students may suffer from isolation, and may have difficulty understanding and expressing feelings.

A variety of assessment models, checklists, observational outlines, and clinical tests are now readily available for school psychologists trained in interviewing techniques and psychoeducational assessments. Additionally, they must not be afraid to query students about suicidal threats or statements. The more detailed and lethal a student's plan is, the more critical it is to immediately notify the school contact person, who will notify the parent(s) and appropriate community personnel.

All general and special educators and service providers should receive training in crisis counseling as a component of preservice and/or inservice instruction. Such training should include techniques to effectively:

  • Handle adepression or suicide-related behavior.
  • Adapt classroom-management procedures to emphasize support, encouragement, gains, and accomplishments.
  • Design classroom intervention strategies that focus on cognitive flexibility, hopefulness, strong social supports, removal from stressors, self-worth, security, and self-control.
When dealing with students with exceptionalities, one size never fits all. For example, unless general and special educators are prepared to work with students with hearing or language impairments, individual and group counseling may be of limited value. Also, specially trained therapists will make greater gains using play therapy with students who have cognitive disabilities. An intervention plan that stresses bibliotherapy with students who have learning disabilities may be the best approach when ability-appropriate materials are employed. In short, care should be taken to select intervention approaches that are compatible with the cognitive, emotional, learning, and physical needs of each student.

More on Helping Students Deal with Crises.

Excerpted from Disruption, Disaster, and Death: Helping Students Deal with Crises.

Council for Exceptional Children

Provided in partnership with The Council for Exceptional Children.


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