By Hilary Causer.
In this post I will share with you how my research into the impact of student suicide on staff in United Kingdom (UK) Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) has led me to consider an expansion to the concept of ‘perceptions of closeness’ . Further, I explore how contextual factors may nurture such perceptions, and propose that consideration of contextual factors is necessary in understanding the postvention needs of those impacted by suicide.
Perceptions of Closeness
The concept of ‘perceptions of closeness’ was coined to describe the finding that people with greater ‘perceived psychological closeness’ to a person who died by suicide, are more likely than those who have kinship ties to identify as a survivor after a death by suicide . Greater perceptions of closeness to the person who died increase the likelihood of depression and anxiety and increase the chance of experiencing post traumatic shock disorder (PTSD) by almost four times . The concept of ‘perceptions of closeness’ has been previously applied to those who had a pre-existing relationship with the person who died, for instance, a sense of closeness to the patient for mental health practitioners affected impact following patient suicide .
Constructing a perception of closeness
I undertook a mixed-method exploration of the impact of student suicide on staff in UK HEIs [4, 5]. I found evidence that those who had no prior relationship with the student who died may also perceive closeness. Nearly all of the participants in my study shared stories through which they constructed a sense of connection with the student who had died. They did this whether or not they had known or worked with the student. For some of the participants these perceptions of ‘knowing’ were the result of their personal process of reflecting on the event. In seeking to understand the student’s death, staff constructed stories and possible explanations. In doing so, they called on their personal frame of reference, and perceptions of similarities or connections between themselves and the student became apparent. This process took various forms, for instance, relating the student to a similarly aged family member; or relating the student to a known other who is troubled, distressed or deceased by suicide; or calling on the experience of being a parent to develop an empathic sense of ‘knowing’ this ‘troubled’ young person. As such, staff members were constructing perceptions of closeness to the student who had died . Cerel  identified an increased perception of impact among those with a greater perception of closeness, the construction of a perception of closeness may, likewise, result in a greater perception of impact.
An ethos of care
Having made this discovery in my interview data, I was then curious to understand more about why staff members were engaging in this process. Findings evidenced a sense that staff members, across all job roles, cared about what happened to their students, and felt a sense of responsibility in terms of the wellbeing of students. This sense of caring about the student is evident in the data even when the student is unknown to staff members. The teacher-student relationship in HE has been described as multi-dimensional, consisting of ‘closeness, care, connection, safety, trust, honesty, fairness, respect, openness, support, encouragement, availability and approachability’ . ‘Caring’ for students is regarded as a humanistic value and a moral responsibility . From housekeeping staff, through registry teams, careers advisers to senior professors, a shared purpose across HEI roles is to meet student need. For some participants, there were narratives of safeguarding or protection, or even of ‘feeling like a mummy’ toward the students. Staff accounts illustrated that roles appeared to place responsibilities on to one group (staff) through a perceived duty of care toward another group (students) .
In seeking to contextualise these perceptions of caring and responsibility, I turned to another concept that had been present in my data. That of belongingness. Belongingness describes the need to belong as being a fundamental human motivation . Baumeister and Leary  describe two main features to the concept; firstly, that people need frequent personal contact with others; secondly, that such contacts take place within the context of a bond or relationship marked by stability, concern, and continuation into the foreseeable future. In HE settings this is evident, for instance, in a study of nursing students, where their experiences of the nature of the staff-student relationship were key to the students’ sense of belongingness . I wondered if ideas of belonging acted either as an anchor, that held staff and students in close proximity, or as a bond, that united them in some other way.
A sense of community
A further visit to the data provided a possible framework. A sense of commonality or of connection was present in the participant accounts. Participants talked about the community of their institution, and these narratives appeared closely connected with ideas of belonging and of ‘how we do things’.Mcmillan and Chavis  defined and theorised the concept of sense of community. They identified four elements that when experienced together, nurture a sense of community within or across a group of individuals who may be linked geographically or relationally. The elements are membership, influence, integration and fulfilment of needs, and shared emotional connection . Staff shared in their accounts strong perceptions of membership in relation to a sense of belonging, which Mcmillan and Chavis  connect to the concept of membership. It appears then, that for the HEI staff in my study, a sense of community was closely connected with perceptions of belongingness. Within which, shared values of caring and responsibility toward students, nurtured a sense of knowing the student. Indeed, to the extent that staff members who may never have met the student before their death, engaged in a process of constructing a perception of closeness with the student. This in turn may have heightened their perceptions of impact following the death by suicide .
This provides us with a novel insight into the experiences of wider populations following a death by suicide. Specifically, in this instance, those who did not know the deceased prior to their death did nonetheless construct a perception of closeness to the deceased. For the participants in my study, this construction of closeness occurred within a context of care, responsibility, belongingness and shared community. This leads me to suggest that understanding context is crucial when assessing or seeking to understand postvention need, particularly among the wider networks around the person who has died by suicide.
I would like to thank my PhD supervisory team, Professor Eleanor Bradley, Dr Kate Muse and Professor Jo Smith for their support in my completion of this research. My PhD was funded by the University of Worcester Research School. Most importantly, I would like to extend my gratitude to the staff members at two UK Higher Education Institutions who generously engaged with this research and shared their experiences with courage and resolve.
- Cerel, J., Maple, M., Aldrich, R., & van de Venne, J. (2013). Exposure to suicide and identification as a survivor: Results from a random-digit dial survey. Crisis, 34(6), 413-419. https://doi.org/10.1027/0227-5910/a000220
- Cerel, J., Maple, M., van de Venne, J., Brown, M., Moore, M., & Flaherty, C. (2017). Suicide Exposure in the Population: Perceptions of Impact and Closeness. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 47(6), 696–708. https://doi.org/10.1111/sltb.12333
- Castelli Dransart, D. A., Heeb, J.-L., Gulfi, A., & Gutjahr, E. M. (2015). Stress reactions after a patient suicide and their relations to the profile of mental health professionals. BMC Psychiatry, 15(1), e265–e265. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-015-0655-y
- Causer, H., Bradley, E., Muse, K., Smith, J. (2021). Bearing witness: A grounded theory of the experiences of staff at two United Kingdom Higher Education Institutions following a student death by suicide. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0251369. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0251369
- Causer, H. (2020) A critical exploration of staff experiences and roles following a student death by suicide in two United Kingdom Higher Education Institutions. [Doctoral thesis, The University of Worcester] University of Worcester Repository. https://eprints.worc.ac.uk/10637/
- Hagenauer, G., & Volet, S. (2014). Teacher-student relationship at university: An important yet under-researched field. Oxford Review of Education, 40(3), 370-388. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2014.921613
- Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497
- Levett-Jones, T., Lathlean, J., Higgins, I., & McMillan, M. (2009). Staff-student relationships and their impact on nursing students’ belongingness and learning. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 65(2), 316-324. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2648.2008.04865.x
- Mcmillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 6-23. https://doi.org/1002/1520-6629(198601)14:13.0.CO;2-1
Hilary Causer (@HilaryCauser) is a Qualitative & mixed-methods researcher working on mental health & wellbeing, postvention, and social care – University of Birmingham. She is an associate at @ResearchIP and facilitator at @VWR_PGR. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.