Yesterday, a terrible thing happened at a high school in Colorado. A boy lit himself on fire in the school cafeteria.
I'm not sure that I would have known about it except that my friend's children attend that school, and she wrote a very moving account of her experience.
For the past year, every time I read a story about teenage suicide I think of Jason's school. Last school year, Jason lost two students to suicide. Eighth grade girls. Only a few weeks apart. Jason had the wrenching experience of having to deliver the news to his students. He was given a statement to read both times, but the news was especially difficult to deliver the first time because the students hadn't already heard.
They saw the empty desk and didn't know.
They talked about their upcoming plans for Christmas vacation.
Her best friend texting her about her absence.
Her cousins laughing and joking in the hallways, unaware.
Jason standing up in class the student was absent from, reading the statement, "...if you need anyone to talk to...."
And then reading the statement again, not even a month later.
No teacher should have to do that. No child should have to hear it. No parent should ever go through that.
Jason teaches in a small town, which had tragically also lost a high school student to suicide just months before it happened at the middle school, and by February everyone was reeling from the loss of these three young lives.
Experts were brought in; teachers were trained; parents were trained; discussions were started...although by this time the students didn't want to talk about suicide anymore. Could you blame them?
Even though this school year has gone much better for Jason, statistics say that schools all over the country experience teen suicide on a daily basis.
According to the CDC, every year for youth ages 10-24:
- approximately 4600 lives are lost to suicide
- approximately 157,000 youth are treated for self-inflicted injuries
- 81% of suicides are male; 19% are female
- girls have more attempts than boys, but they are much less likely to use guns and so less successful
It's an uncomfortable issue for most people, but one that is really important to me because the topic of mental health is near and dear to my heart. Not only is it an issue that I deal with personally on a daily basis, but it's one that I think people avoid talking about at great risk to our children.
So what do we do? What should we be talking to kids about when the unimaginable happens at their school?
I think we should stop talking about how it's unimaginable, particularly in front of kids. I think it's one thing for a kid to say, How could they do that? What were they thinking? and quite another for a parent to say it. If a kid says it then it's a good sign that they haven't contemplated suicide. If a parent says it, it can come across as judgment and close the door for their child to say, "I know what they're thinking. I feel that way too."
We shouldn't make a kid feel like their depression, their anxiety, their anger against the world is something they can't talk about. And when we make statements about how crazy it is for a kid to contemplate suicide it doesn't promote a discussion that says it's okay for you to talk about how you feel, no matter how dark and terrible you might be feeling.
We should also be careful about how we show our emotions when teen suicide happens. I'm not saying we shouldn't show grief; it's important that kids see that teen suicide is a heartbreaking, tragic loss. But kids watch our reactions and we can be honest without giving the impression that we are easily broken by tragedy and cannot handle the problems they want to bring to us. As parents we need to show kids that we are strong enough to handle whatever it is they want to talk about, even if in reality we are usually not strong enough. I'm not the parent of a teenager, but I was a teenager with mental health issues and I've listened to a lot of teenagers with mental health issues, and one of the regular refrains I hear from them when it comes to talking about mental health is "My parents would be so heartbroken/disappointed/angry if they knew this."
Kids come to this conclusion because of the rhetoric we use when we talk about suicide or because they sense our own mental health is not strong enough to handle their problems. If you're in a constant state of seeming overwhelmed or frazzled you may be telling your kid not to trouble you with their problems. Not every kid is sensitive to their parents' emotional stability, but those who suffer from depression often don't want to cause trouble or bring more stress to their parents.
Most importantly, we should be asking our kids if they feel depressed or if they want to hurt themselves. And we should allow space for them to say "yes." Experts agree that this is the one thing you should talk to your kids about, but obviously it's easier said than done. Outside of a tragic event, it is not part of our regular conversation. Specifically, we are uncomfortable talking to our kids about their depression. Maybe we think it's just regular teen moodiness; maybe we think talking to kids about suicide will make them want to commit suicide. I think you could talk to me about scuba diving. For a week. With handouts. I won't ever want to go scuba diving.
Talking to kids about suicide doesn't make them want to commit suicide. Talking to kids about suicide makes kids know you aren't afraid of talking about it. Even if, of course, it's an absolutely terrifying thing to talk about.
People who have relatively stable mental health will always struggle to understand those of us who don't. It took me more than 15 years to talk easily and openly about the mental health issues that I have (and I'm happy to say I'm in a good space now), and I know my awareness and acceptance of it will help my girls in the future. We've already worked on making mental health part of our conversations. Just tonight my daughter sobbed to me, "I need help. I'm tired, and I'm crabby, and I can't calm down. Please help me." A little kid doesn't come up with that on her own; it's a script we have practiced over and over.
We have to give our kids the opportunity to talk, even if it's awkward getting started.
We can't ignore teen suicide. We have to talk. And we have to pray. Pray for our children's teachers. Pray for their peers. Pray for our own wisdom. And pray for our kids that they know they aren't alone in their despair.
So let's talk about this. What are your thoughts?