Youth Suicide: The Silent Epidemic

(By Kimberly Claus, School Resource Officer, Discovery Middle School)

With the tragic death that just occurred in Cooperstown, and bullying being a possible contributing factor, suicide is at the forefront of many people’s thoughts and conversations.  Some professionals consider youth suicide to be a “Silent Epidemic.”  Each week in our nation, we lose approximately 100 young people to the national health problem of suicide.  If we were losing that many people to any disease, it would be considered an epidemic.

Here are some of the numbers, nationally, that give rise to the problem we face:

  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death for ages 10-24.
  • Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for ages 10-14.

Based on the 2009 CDC Youth Risk Behavioral Survey, youth reported that in the last 12 months:

  • One out of Seven (13.8%) seriously considered suicide.
  • One out of Nine (11.3%) actually made a plan to attempt suicide.
  • Almost One out of every Fifteen (6.3%) attempted suicide one or more times.

These numbers are startling.  Also very disturbing is the fact that in the last 40 years, youth suicide rates have almost tripled.  In trying to find reasons for the increase, some theories have explored the new age of electronic media.  In the past bullying was something that probably happened at school with a break when the youth was at home.  Today it can be a 24-hour-a-day torment via texting or social websites.  There is the sense of anonymity of being behind a screen leading to much crueler things being said to a much wider audience than the old fashioned name-calling that used to occur face-to-face.  It has also been theorized that today’s youth haven’t developed the best coping skills to deal with situations in their lives that they encounter.  One professional put it this way, “In order to be able to deal with adversity, you have to be exposed to adversity.”

So what are some of the things we as teachers, staff and parents can do to prevent these tragedies from happening?  Studies have shown that more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have demonstrated risk factors such as depression, mental disorders and or substance abuse problems.  Additionally, 4 out of 5 teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs.  These were sometimes missed, ignored because “I didn’t think they were serious,” or sometimes passed off as just “being a typical teenager rebellion.”  We need to educate ourselves on the warning signs that can indicate that a person may be at risk so we can recognize that there may be a problem and intervene before it is too late.

Some of the signs that we should be aware of are: 

  • Depression or comments of despair and hopelessness
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Suicide notes or verbal threats of suicide – direct ones, such as “I’m going to kill myself” – or indirect, such as “The world would be a better place without me.”  These can be verbal, through Internet sources  such as email, Facebook, or texts
  • Making final arrangements; giving away treasured possessions
  • Sudden changes in personality or behavior
  • Mood swings or crying spells
  • Changes in school performance
  • Recent grief or losses
  • Death or suicidal themes in schoolwork such as classroom drawings, journals, or homework

When the unfortunate tragedy of the suicide of a young person occurs in our school community, we have the added risk of suicide clusters.  While rare, research indicates that there can be a contagion in at-risk youth who may identify with the first victim, and they themselves then commit suicide.

The Fargo Public School District has a plan in place to try to assist students and families should we have a student suicide or any other significant event that may impact the school community.  It consists of a crisis management team made up of administrators, counselors, staff and additional teachers as needed.  They accumulate, evaluate and disperse information accurately and quickly.  In suicide cases, it is important to identify students who may present an elevated risk for suicidal behavior.  In the event that at student is found to be “at risk,” parents are contacted and referrals are made.  Counseling would be encouraged for students in need.  Open lines of communication are encouraged between parents, students and school staff.

While we all hope that we can avoid a tragedy such as the one that occurred in Cooperstown, it is a wakeup call that we all need to be more aware.  Let’s talk to our kids and keep the lines of communication open.  Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions.  If they are thinking about killing themselves, you asking them will not push them over the edge or give them any ideas.  If we begin to recognize the warning signs and take them seriously, we can do a better job of intervention and get the person the help they need.  Prevention is the key.  Working together will not only help save lives, but greatly enhance schools’ ability to respond effectively if a tragedy does occur.