Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Suicide Series: When Difficult Conversations Matter


As a teacher educator,  there are certainly a few topics that cause me to hold back.  My chest tightens when I hear one of my teacher candidates share about a recent suicide at their school site.

As a classroom teacher I never experienced having to navigate in a school setting where a student I use to know has taken their life  and I might have to grapple with questions like, "What could I have done?" "Was this preventable?" and "Were there any signs?"

In Silicon Valley where many of my teacher candidates are working teen suicide has made national headlines.  The pressure to perform and the expectation to succeed is a likely factor that contributes to stress and anxiety in a teen's life.  Luthar's (2006) research found affluent kids are at risk especially when achievement-related goals such as "attend a good college" and "make a lot of money" are higher ranked than personal values such as "being kind to others" and "happy with yourself and life".

As a teenage I will never forget the day when I found out a friend decided to take his life.  It happened unexpectedly and without warning. So the topic of suicide can possibly trigger some old memories I never had the chance to deal with.  I imagine that many of the teachers I work with also know someone who took their life; teenage suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens.

Personally, the thought of suicide never occurred to me,  until I lost someone I knew.  Then came feelings of deep sadness that I could not explain or even process.  I also began to wonder what it would be like, to bring my life to an end, would that make all my troubles go away?  I experienced bullying, shaming, and pressure to perform and get into a "good" college as a teen.  My parents were also going through a divorce during high school and I felt suffocated going to a catholic school where so many pressures I faced as a teen were ignored.

A recent Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, chronicles the life of a teenage girl whose decision to take her life at the onset of the movie,  is revealed through a series of audio tapes she sends to students who impacted her decision.  As this film and book brings much needed attention to the topic of suicide,  the power and romanticism of the act can be potentially dangerous to teenagers at risk and lacking sense of agency in their life.  As noted in Luthar's research teens who are already depressed and feeling little self-worth might see suicide as powerful choice.  The potential danger of a romanticized version of suicide is echoed by teen writer Jaclyn Grimm in a USA Today Op-ed piece.

Teachers should consider how media such as this show may trigger students who are already thinking about suicide.  Having conversations with your students and colleagues at your school site, including guidance counselors and administrators can begin formulating ways you can build a safe and inclusive school where students thrive and feel safe, protected and cared for.  

A few tips for teachers who may be working with students at risk: 

  1.  Don't assume that other people know and will handle it.  Assume that you are the only one and be pro-active. 
  2. Don't ignore indirect references to suicide, such as "I wish my life was over" or "You''ll be sad when I am gone".
  3. Students who share ideas of feeling hopeless, withdrawn and express self-hatred may be at risk of suicide. 
  4. Immediately contact your school psychologist, guidance counselor and social worker to determine a plan for action treat this as an emergency
  5. When difficult conversations occur don't judge, or diminish students' feelings validate their feelings and determine if they are at risk of suicide.


Here are a few addition resources for information on suicide prevention and support:



24 comments:

  1. Thank you for posting this blog. Last week a student in my district committed suicide in the quad area of his middle school campus. I am troubled that I found out about it on Facebook and not through our district office. There is a student advocacy group called Strength over Silence that is tackling the important issue of depression and mental health in south orange county. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It is heartbreaking and preventable.

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    1. In today's busy world we need to take the time to be present as teachers to what is going on in our school community. I know it is easier said than done but so so sad that a student would take their life in a prominent area of the school so they could be recognized and heard. Of course their are other factors going on that are often outside of the teacher's control, but kids need to know we care. I also believe that districts need to make more time for teachers to enjoy teaching and not be so test driven and academic focus that teachers can not develop the bonds with students that need to happen.

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  2. Thank you for this blog. This is a very difficult topic to speak on. Its important that our schools recognize this topic as a serious problem among our teenagers. We need to find an effective solution to this growing topic. Our schools need funding and suicide programs need to be implemented in our schools.

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    1. I am in favor for smaller schools at the middle school and high school level. Our schools have become too big for teachers to give the time and attention each child deserves. This increase in suicides at the middle school level is increasingly telling of how detached we have become from educating the whole child. Parents too have become consumed with work 24/7 and access to technology is one reason why the family dynamic has changed and there is an increase in depression among young children.

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  3. Thank you for this wonderful post. Working in a high school where there is an extreme level of importance placed on academics makes this topic one that I am unfortunately too familiar with. During my first year as a teacher I had a student who's brother had unexpectedly passed away the year prior in a car accident. The student had a very dark sense of humor, and one day stated that he had done so poorly on an exam that he should "just go crash his car into a tree" (which was how his brother passed). Although he kept arguing with me that he was "just joking", I waited with him until our school psychologist and intervention team were able to meet with him and assess the situation. I have found that often times our students will disguise their feelings with humor, and because of this, we must take all of the appropriate steps when comments of this nature are addressed. I really appreciated reading your post as it is sadly so relevant to what I see so often in my school on a regular basis.

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  4. Hello,
    In 2018, a former preschooler of mine, committed suicide two months shy of his eighteenth birthday. I had the typical reactions: shock, denial, sadness etc. All I could think about was the rest of the family, (whom I know ) and what they were going through. I was heart broken that a student of mine had actually decided to hurt himself permanently. An entire community was grieving and the sad part about it was that he probably did not know how many lives he had touched. So sad. This"event", led to thoughts of, "How can I help prevent this?' I plan on joining a Teenage Suicide Prevention group and see how I can serve there.

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  5. As an Early Education Teacher I try to get informed about issues that affect kids of all ages in hopes that I can learn of preventive measures to put into practice. I think about bullying and self-esteem which I have read can be major issues in teen depression and suicide. The children I work with are our communities youngest learners and I hope to provide them the opportunity to develop strong social skills that will empower and support them during difficult times. Helping young children develop healthy self esteem, good problem solving skills and social skills can be instrumental in dealing with many issues that can arise later in life.

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  6. As an educator I find that self-esteem issues are often the root of what is keeping our children from learning. Suicide prevention can start as early as preschool. Making connections with our students, coming alongside them in times of need and supporting them when they struggle are all ways that we can let our students know that we care. Another comment mentioned that students often mask their pain with humor. We must recognize that their behaviors are not to be criticized, but recognized as a cry for help. As a mother of three high school students I find that the topic of suicide is brought up regularly in our household. We watched 13 Reasons Why as a family and discussed the various issues portrayed in the show. It was an opportunity to make sure that each child understood what was happening, had the opportunity to ask questions in a safe space, and discuss our individual opinions.

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  7. Angie D.

    As an Early Childhood Educator and member of society, there is nothing more shocking about hearing about young children taking their own lives. Every school year we are enrolling students impacted by broken homes, trauma, abuse, neglect, depression, special needs, anxiety and/or being raised by people other than their parents . These are significant factors in young children’s suicide. I also agree that district need to make more time for teachers to enjoy teaching and not be so test driven. By building students’ self-worth and meeting their need for connection to motivate learning is crucial. The relationships, compassion and understanding that I strive to develop with my students is what can build confidence in students and motivate them to learn about empathy, compassion, and be better prepared to cope more effectively with adversity. I will definitely share your blog and share with colleageus about being pro-active by addressing these concerns and not assuming. someone else knowes and will do something.

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  8. Dealing with children everyday for 8 hours a day and 5 days a week, as educator we can look for some of these feelings and reactions from the students. Reading of the experiences the some educators have already dealt with is hard to imagine going through myself. When your students some in to school you are hoping that they are in a made mood because they didn't get enough sleep. Having to think about what a student is feeling underneath the smiles. Just reading and imagining one of my students taking their own life and I didn't know they felt so sad, I think it would hit me hard when I heard the news. I would think about the days before and have so many questions. I hope that I can learn to notice the children that maybe feeling this way and I pray I could help them before knowing they felt they had know other way out.

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  9. I appreciate this post. I really like that you mentioned the series "Thirteen Reasons Why", especially because the book is one of my favorites. In the book, Hannah, the victim, is assessed by Clay, the receiver of the reasons, as someone who did not take agency of the things that occured to her. Of course, they were awful things, but she chose a permanent solution to what should have been temporary problems, had she asked for help. However, the tv show, which is much more popular than the book, romanticizes Hannah's feelings and acts as if she is justified in her actions. This is a crude reenactment of the message of the book.

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  10. After reading this post, I read an article by NPR discussing the increase in suicide during the the month that followed the release of "13 reasons Why." The article stated, "The number of suicides was greater than that seen in any single month over the five-year period researchers examined" (Schwartz, 2019). Conversely, the same article stated, "that young adults, ages 18-29, who watched the entire second season of the show 'reported declines in suicide ideation and self-harm relative to those who did not watch the show at all'" (Schwartz, 2019). I say this, because it shows that the program may have been correlated with an uptick in suicides, but also may have been correlated with a decrease in suicides which further supports your blog post and the need for suicide to be discussed within society.
    I would also like to bring to light the higher likelihood of certain groups of people especially in younger people to commit or attempt suicide. The Trevor Project, an organization that charges itself with, "providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25" (2017). that, "LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth and are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth" (2017). I say this to further your point that some youth are more likely to contemplate and or attempt suicide which is why knowing our students beyond their names and creating a safe space for dialogue is so important. Thank you for opening this topic to discussion and charging all of us with the duty to help end it.
    Be well,
    Michael Gmur

    Bibliography:

    Schwartz, M. S. (2019, April 30). Teen Suicide Spiked After Debut Of Netflix's '13 Reasons Why,' Study Says. https://www.npr.org/2019/04/30/718529255/teen-suicide-spiked-after-debut-of-netflixs-13-reasons-why-report-says.


    The Trevor Projectr. (2017, September 20). Facts About Suicide. The Trevor Project. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/preventing-suicide/facts-about-suicide/.

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  11. Thank you Michael for your thoughtful comment. This is such a hard conversation to have but we need to as you shared to get students talking and feeling less isolated. The statistics you shared are alarming and really expose the risk and responsibilities we have as educators to push these conversations and let our students know they can get through this. Building community is critical especially in this age of distance learning.

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  12. Griselda HernandezMay 10, 2021 at 1:39 PM

    As I began to read your article, I immediately thought about two things: 13 Reasons Why series on Netflix and a recent suicide that took place at my son's middle school about 6 months ago. The Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, was a difficult show to watch, however, I couldn't find myself to pause it or stop watching it all together. That show captivated my interest so much due to my interest (and background) in mental health. Suicide is an extremely hard topic to discuss. And so, as I previously mentioned, one of my son's friend/ classmate committed suicide during the Covid-19 pandemic. There had been talk about students mental health from the school and they offered various resources to help the students talk virtually with professionals. However, as a parent who was also trying to navigate distance learning for two kids, while also working a full time job, and going to school, there were many missed opportunities to talk with my own children. When we got news about the suicide from his friend, my husband and I immediately spoke with our son to see where his head space was. I read an article written by Berman and Dubinski, in regard to mental health during online learning and they stated,"even small exercises can go a long way toward helping kids feel safe and validated." Thus, it scaffolded into a group of parents becoming more active in the coffee with the principal sessions to request additional resources and supports to help our students feel safe and heard during these times. Thank you for this article, i enjoyed it very much and let's keep the conversation about mental health going.

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  13. Thank you. I work with small children, but anybody should be aware of the warning signs. Many students who mention suicide are begging for people to care about them and convince them that their life is worth living.

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  14. I will recommend you to register for Mental Health First Aid Training to learn how to help someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. It helps you to identify, understand and respond to signs of addiction or mental illnesses.
    https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/take-a-course/

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  15. Thank You for Sharing this topic with the community: I am an ECE educator, and even though I received the Mental Health First Aid Training toward such hard topics, I feel like I couldn't save my teen from going through that. When I read your blog, I remembered what I went through as a mother of a teen, who attempted suicide. How that event in my life changes my perspective even about A+ grades. I believe that I reached for therapy and provided quality time to my daughter. In addition, I reached the school and tried my best to reduce any stressors that could cause sadness on my daughter, but nothing stops it. I am glad she left a note where she apologized to me for no longer be able to handle her situation. That note calmed all the police officers around me. She was in the ambulance, and I was like a criminal around officers. She received later treatment. It continues to be a sad and painful memory. Also, the therapist suggested, that I should watch "13 Reasons Why", which I did. I will encourage all of you to watch out for any sign of depression that you can detect and do something about it. Families and children can be impacted positively for a gesture of care and to be able to do early intervention for suicide.

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  16. I resonate with this blog and thank you for your words. As someone who personally whose feelings were always minimized because “you don’t know what real pressure and stress is” or “you’re fine” or “was that an emotional reaction” (even now as I write these words, I feel triggered). It is so vital we remember children are not only trying to please every adult in their life, but they are also trying to learn skills and academics we all went to school to master, all while their bodies are changing in so many radical ways they don’t understand – not limited to the chemical changes in their brains! I too was sympathetic towards those who had been affected by suicide, but it wasn’t until it hit me directly it rocked my world. I actually believe 10.5 years later I am still numb to what actually occurred. My passion and heart are for the hurting. I went to college to become a child abuse counselor and my life has taken a different turn and I have the privilege of teaching educators how to exhibit, teach and model social emotional learning skills. How to gain trust with their students, how to facilitate conversations and community between their students so bullying is decreased, and empathy goes up. I also chose to become certified through QPR Suicide Prevention training so I can learn how best to advocate. In this pandemic this conversation is at a heightened state and your post should be revisited over and over. Thank you again!

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  17. Hello,
    I would like to thank you for creating this blog and feel it can be so useful in my community. I live in a city where recently has been greatly affected by suicide at almost every level of schools. Its heartbreaking to see this and I believe that every school employee should be trained on this. I work in the ECE field and believe it is necessary at even that age.

    Thank You Again!

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  18. Hello Dr. Dickenson,

    I just wanted to thank you very much for sharing your blog and shedding light on this very important topic. I wish more people would talk about it because it is an issue for so many teenagers. It is heartbreaking how many teenagers commit suicide on a daily basis. I agree, we should never judge anyone or assume that they are okay. It is important to create a safe place for them, be supportive, have open and honest communication, and take this subject very seriously.

    As an early childhood educator, my goal is to pay close attention to any warning signs and to ensure that my students feel safe, acknowledged, accepted, appreciated, understood, supported, cared for and have a sense of belonging in my classroom. Every child and teenager needs support and a trusting individual to turn to during those difficult days. Thank you for also mentioning the Netflix series, "13 Reasons Why". It was extremely tough to watch; however, it is a topic that needs to be discussed, as this tends to happen in real life.

    Thank you again for your post!

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  19. Thank you for this blog. This hits very close to home because I have 2 family members who have contemplated suicide. Like you, I am glad that much needed light has been shed on the topic but I also feel like TV and media do romanticize the topic. A lot of the shows my teen watch have made reference to suicide but I rarely see the part of the show where they are advocating for therapy or letting the child know that there are other ways to work through it. As a parent of 2 teens it has forced open dialogue that may not have normally occurred. I'm sorry that you had to deal with the loss of a precious life. This makes me want to get more involved with other teens.

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  20. Hello Dr. Dickenson, as a passionate advocate for suicide prevention, I am happy to see so many have found your blog post helpful. Death by suicide is now the second leading cause of death for 10–24-year old’s and the tenth for adults. These statistics were pre-pandemic and with current stressors those of us working in mental health and education are concerned as to the lasting impact of vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress is having on us all. The Heard Alliance was formed out of the deaths you mention in the Silicon Valley, and they have done tremendous work by creating a K-12 toolkit for mental health promotion and suicide prevention for schools. The California Department of Education also has a webinar series of free trainings on Building a Network of Safety for School Communities on Suicide Prevention, which includes experts who discuss various aspects of suicide prevention in schools. While thoughts of suicide are common, our work focuses on highlighting hope and recovery. Thank you for adding your voice to raise awareness around suicide prevention and intervention!

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