Friday, November 4, 2016

Student Suicide

I knew it was a growing issue. I didn't know it was this bad.

Between 2007 and 2014 the suicide rate for children aged 10-14 doubled. Doubled. That's according to the Center for Disease Control. If you want to put that in perspective, the rate of death by auto accident has been dropping steadily since 1999 (the beginning of the charted data), cut by more than half. In 2014, the suicide rate climbed above the death by car accident rate (homicide was lower than both, and steadily dropping). The suicide rate had held steady with a slight dip up until 2007.

I don't know why; I suspect nobody does. More fragile kids? Tougher, more unkind world? Something to do with the internet? If you tell me that Kids These Days need more grit, I swear I will reach through the internet and slap you. Just this week we had the news of an eleven year old girl who had survived freaking cancer committing suicide over bullying. And NPR has been running a series for a month entitled "A Silent Epidemic: The Mental Health Crisis in Our Schools"

There are people paying attention. In Pennsylvania, we have mandatory suicide prevention training for teachers-- all it amounts to is a run-through-it-yourself on-line slide show with a concluding quiz, but it still gets some hard information to us, which is no small thing. Mental health issues and suicide are issues that everyone has "heard something" about, and often that is bunk. And I can tell you that hoping that instincts and folk wisdom will just kick in when the moment comes-- well, that's a bad plan.

I teach in a small town school system that sits at the heart of a rural area. When you look up "All-American classic small town life" in the dictionary, you find a picture of my town. And I've been getting intermittent training about this issue for four decades, since one of our staff members' children took his own life. I've watched an old friend go through the heartbreak with the loss of his son. And not long enough ago that I can easily set it aside, one of my former yearbook editors came home for Christmas break to the family home situated on the river. They found her footprints leading out across the ice to the water; they found her body downriver many weeks later. Her parents are good, successful people. She was smart, capable, loving, goodhearted. My yearbook students, before they leave senior year, paint a block in the wall of the yearbook room. I see her block every day that I go to work.

It is easy for those of us who deal with students to think that all the drama and fraughtitude and angstiness is SOP. Life is tough and hard and has lots of sharp edges that bruise tender shins, but hey, it's always been that way and always will be and these kids will grow out of it, get over it, and be just fine. And for the majority that is still true. But not for all of them. Again, I am not prepared to say whether life has become harder to deal with or if they are less able to deal. But something has changed, and those of us who work with students have to believe that, and act accordingly.

NPR included a list of six myths, six "pointers" for dealing with this stuff as teachers offered by David Jobes, the head of Catholic University's Suicide Prevention Lab. They are kind of standard issue, much like what we get in our "training," but they are worth repeating here. Hell, they're worth repeating everywhere. Here are some things to remember.

1) Be direct. People are often afraid to talk directly about suicide, as if saying it out loud is like calling Betelgeuse. Experts say no-- just come out with it. Jobes suggests something as simple as "Sounds like you're really down, have you thought about taking your life?"

2) Depression and suicide do not go together like love and marriage. The majority of depressed people don't commit suicide. By Jobes's count, maybe half the people who commit suicide are depressed. Other mental health issues can be a factor. Or not.

3) We can prevent suicides. This is hard to think about; nobody wants the deceased student's friends telling themselves it's their fault. It isn't. There can be other signs like increased stress, insomnia, withdrawal. It's tricky, because all the signs can also occur without being signs of suicidal thoughts, however if we look at the full picture, we can sometimes see what's coming. If we pay attention and get involved, we can make a difference because--

4) Suicides do not always take place in an impulsive moment. It takes time for issues to build up that much pressure, and that can be followed by time to plan and prepare and, sometimes, drop hints like crazy about what the student has planned. They fantasize about it, collect information, drop hints to friends, make mention in class writings. They will generally not talk to parents, but to others-- they often indicate what they have in mind.

5) We've now got suicides on the books by children as young as five, and it breaks my heart just to type that, but like many problems that are overlooked, one of the issues is that we don't believe what we're seeing even as we are looking directly at. If a small child is setting off signals and you're telling yourself, "Well, it just can't be because it just can't-- not with a kid that young." Well, apparently, tragically, gut-wrenchingly, it can be.

6) Afterwards, your school needs small groups to talk and share, not a big auditorium assembly lecture.

There are many guidelines out there, and plenty of trained professionals, so get help when you need it. This is one of those issues that really shouldn't be part of a teacher's job, but we're the ones who are there, with the students, and that makes it our job. Read up on this stuff. And then just pray that the day never comes in your career that you need to know any of it.


  1. Reducing the overall amount of stress caused by school might help children as well. I am thinking, in particular, about the stress caused by excessive high-stakes, standardized testing. School stress is a huge problem in Japan, and Japanese children who commit suicide do so frequently in August and September around the start of the school year.

  2. Thank you for a post on this topic. As a teacher who taught for many years on an inpatient psychiatric unit for children/adolescents, mental health is something near and dear to my heart.

    A few things. Yes, it absolutely makes sense to be sure all school staff are trained on recognizing the signs of suicidal ideation. However, and I want to make this absolutely clear, and you allude to this in the piece, teachers cannot and should not be the principle people in charge of dealing with major mental health issues. Identifying problems, yes, but this is something we teachers are simply not trained to handle after that. This level of need must be addressed by trained professionals-our social worker, counselor, psychologist co-workers and then psychiatrists and medical professionals. Teachers need to be trained on both noticing signs and on protocols and resources available to reach out to when they see those signs in a student. The NPR piece talks about asking a child directly about suicidal thoughts, which implies teachers can deal with this in a classroom. I wish they had clarified that the moment a child makes a suicidal statement, schools must call for help immediately!!! As in call 911. Or call SASS. Don’t be afraid to ask, but be ready for the answer. A child should never be left alone once a suicidal statement is made. So having this conversation in class is tricky. I think, when possible, it’s better for teachers to reach out to social workers/counselors and put clear screening and referral processes in place rather than tackling it ourselves. Though if a situation arises with a student, do what you have to do to keep that child safe.

    We also need to ramp up the fight to guarantee that robust mental health services are available in our schools and our communities. The CTU has made this a central message in our fight around the “schools our students deserve.” And we must also continue to fight the parts of schooling that are contributing to the higher rates of suicidality in our kids. “No excuses” charters and high pressure selective enrollment schools were some of the main drivers of school-related suicidality at the hospital where I worked. It was the testing, the competition, the ridiculous academic/extra-curricular loads and the rigid “no excuses” prison-like environments driving too many young people to suicidal thoughts in Chicago.

    But I’m glad we’re talking about this. It’s a growing problem. But let’s also not accept austerity budget calls for teachers to take on these problems as they cut the real services. We simply can’t and shouldn’t do it.

  3. I am saying this as someone who has owned & was raised around firearms:

    A large plurality if not a slight majority of firearms owners are irresponsible. They keep loaded hand guns unlocked in and around their beds where their child or teenager (especially teenager) may be trusted to know not to touch or use it.

    AND, that handgun has the ultimate off & on switch which acts irreversibly at roughly a microsecond after the decision is made by someone who in a moment of depression, panic or anger to end his/her transient misery. Yes people do kill people, BUT guns make that so much more efficient than any other method.

    In the USA, it is madness that we allow 16 year-olds to drive (actually 15 year-olds in many states). The fact that many teens have easy access to weapons with no supervision is completely off the rails.

    1. "In the USA, it is madness that we allow 16 year-olds to drive (actually 15 year-olds in many states)."

      Are you saying it would make sense to have kids start learning to drive when they're 18 and away from their parents' supervision for the first time in their lives? The 15/16 driving age is one of the few things we do right in this country. If only we could lower the voting age accordingly (actually, both should be lower).

    2. I don't know, Dienne, I've seen many of my students killed because of reckless driving decisions.

  4. Read the stats on traffic casualties & the maturity of 15-16 year old brains. The insurance actuaries sure do. That's why they charge so much for young drivers.

    And, yes, 18 should be the minimum driving age.