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Student Suicide

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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 month 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.

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Peter Greene has been a classroom teacher of secondary English for thirty-many years. He lives and works in a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania where he plays ni a town band, works in community theater, and writes for the local paper.

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Guest Saturday, 19 August 2017