NPR reports that the suicide rate for middle schoolers doubled from 2007 to 2014, reaching an all-time high. More of them now die by suicide than car crashes. The article describes six common myths about student suicides.
For those of us who do crisis intervention in schools in the aftermath of suicides, the statistic is all too real. Our Bay Area Critical Incident Stress Management Team helps schools with notifications, resources for the child’s family, students, the school staff and the community. Administrators are almost always focused on what they can do for teachers; the teachers are mostly focused on what they can do for the students. Nearly everyone is asking themselves what they could have done to change the outcome. It is a tough situation to walk into.
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Although schools know in theory that children sometimes kill themselves, when it actually happens, they know it in an entirely new way. We sometimes call this “crossing a line.” One you have crossed that line, you can never go back and “un-know” the reality. Although school has to go on, it’s not going to be the same again. You will never be the same again.
One of the most difficult parts of all suicides, but particularly painful for teachers and school staff, is to recognize the warning signs afterwards, when it is too late to intervene. There are almost always warnings when you know what to look for. Suicides are rarely impulsive and are preventable. (Nevertheless, we often tell friends and family afterwards that if someone is absolutely determined, they will probably succeed no matter what you do – and acknowledge how incredibly pain that helplessness is.)
Suicide is preventable because – and this might seem strange – it is a solution to life’s problems. The suicidal person unfortunately, mistakenly, comes to the conclusion that suicide is the only solution. It is absolutely possible to help them postpone their decision, giving them time and resources to recognize that there are other solutions. I have seen it happen – we regularly discover and intervene with other suicidal students in the aftermath.
Schools have to walk a fine line after a suicide – honoring and acknowledging the grief and suffering of the student who died, while avoiding activities that would send the message that suicide is an acceptable solution to life problems.
I’ve seen a pattern in many of the student suicides to which I’ve responded in recent years. There’s nothing scientific about this observation, but my instincts suggest it is not uncommon. The student who took their own life was often quite successful academically, involved in many activities, leading a very busy life. They become attracted to or involved romantically with another person, who rejects them. These are typical teenage experiences, except that these students seem to have become deeply, deeply invested in this one relationship, so that when it fails, they are left emotionally adrift. They are so busy with school and activities that they didn’t have time and space – and little encouragement – to develop a social support network with depth; instead, they “bet everything” on the one person. This pattern doesn’t always lead to suicide, but many teen and young adult suicides seem to fit it.
I believe that we will fail to truly address the problem if we only blame suicides on academic pressure, which often is the immediate reaction. Stress doesn’t have to be bad for you, but it certainly is when you are socially isolated. Disconnection is toxic for anyone who lets work or school become so important that they let go or fail to develop the kinds of relationships that we increasingly recognize are crucial to thriving under pressure.
We should not focus so hard on what is happening to these students; we have to remember to look for what is missing. To cope with stress effectively, we need strong connections to the people around us, to ourselves and nature, and to our spiritual values. When schools focus too much on academics and accomplishments, the stress-coping resources can easily lose priority.
Technology hasn’t helped – it has given us myriad new ways to connect with others in shallow ways, contributing to sedentary lives that disconnect us from our bodies and nature, disrupting traditional communities, and devaluing spirituality. In fact, spirituality has been so devalued and confused with religion that I feel as though any time I mention it, I also need to define it – spirituality (in the context of thriving under pressure) means having values and a sense of awe and wonder., bigger-than-self goals and purposes. Religion can be a source of spirituality, but schools can instill values, selflessness and care for others without crossing the line into religion.