A couple of weeks ago, rumors reached me of a 7th grade boy at one of our local junior high schools taking his life. I reached out to those I know that would have any information, and it was confirmed that the young man had in fact taken his life. I reached out to the school to offer my condolences and any help I could, but received no reply. In fact, I was informed that the teachers had been told not to talk to the students about the incident, and if students had any questions, they were to be referred to the counselors. I would like to say I was stunned, but that would be a lie. Once again, an opportunity to educate students about suicide and mental health issues, and to possible save or help some one, was wasted.
No offense to the counselors at that school, but how many of the students assigned to them have they spent the past ten or twelve weeks with on a daily basis? How many of those students do they interact with on a daily basis? How many of those students are comfortable opening up to some one they may not have even spoken to since school started? It is the teachers that are on the front lines in this battle. It is the teachers that have earned the trust of the students they are assigned. It is the teachers that have built relationships with, and they have effectively been handcuffed.
My frustration had peaked, and I was ready to launch into a tirade on social media, but then I was asked by the lead counselor at my school for suggestions that might help with this problem. Please keep in mind that this was the third suicide of a student in the district since June, and it seemed apparent to me that something needed to be done before another student took their life. I turned o the experts. Not people with multiple advanced degrees and an alphabet soup of certifications after their name, but the real experts, those that have been touched personally by suicide.
This time I did turn to social media, in particular, Facebook. I am a member of a plethora of groups dedicated to raising awareness and defeating the stigma of suicide and mental health issues. I am also part of many that provide an open forum and honest discussion for those that have been affected and left behind by suicide. I also spoke to those that I know personally who have lost loved ones to suicide. The common thread that seemed to run through all of the conversations were communication and education.
Now before I continue, I want people to know that I am not an expert on suicide. I am a 52 year old English teacher with a degree in Radio-TV-Film. What I know is self taught and learned, and before my 13 year old son Peyton took his life in October of 2014, I confess to being as ignorant and uninformed as most. Like so many people out there that grew up in my generation, suicide and mental health were taboo subjects. We associated mental health with one word, crazy. Any one that took medication for or sought professional help for mental illness was crazy. They would be in the special class with all the other crazies, and all that awaited them in the future was a lifetime of walking up and down the street in a bathrobe screaming that "the end is near!" Nor did we talk about suicide. Although it has not been a crime, in the United States in over 20 years, there was a time when it was a felony to attempt, or complete, suicide, and although it was hard to prosecute a dead body, it would be the family of the victim that would suffer the consequences.
My youth and early adulthood was a time of silence with the old (and outdated) belief that if we didn't talk about something, it didn't exist. In fact, the first time suicide affected a school I worked at, a letter was put in each teacher's box (pre-email days), where we were told that a student (no name given) had taken their life, we were given explicit instructions not to talk about it, and we were only to send a student to the counselor if they asked. Even in the days before electronics, most the kids knew well before school started that morning. There were hugs and sadness in the hallways, but not a word was spoken. When I asked his English teacher what had happened, she told me that the administration swooped into her classroom, demanded his journal and any work that he had turned in, and left just as fast as they arrived. Before the first bell rang that day, all trace that this child's shadow had ever darkened the doorway at the school had all but been scrubbed from existence. There was no memorial page in the yearbook, no moment of silence over the announcements, nothing. Just an empty desk in a classroom that no one wanted to sit in because of the irrational fear that what ever drove this child to take their life might be contagious.
It was the desire to purge myself of this ignorance during the horrifying days while Peyton was hospitalized, and in the weeks and months that followed I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about suicide, and more importantly, it’s causes. Not knowing where to start, I went where most people go when they have a question, Google. I typed causes of suicide into the search bar and began my journey of learning. I read and read and read and read. I became familiar with the actual causes of suicide, the reasons that people attempt suicide, and the staggering number of people lost each year to suicide. I also read other people's accounts of losing loved ones to suicide, how they dealt with the pain, and how their lives were forever changed. I knew that education was the key, not just for me, but others of my generation, and today's youth.
The most telling part of how far we had to come was the one and only time my wife Lisa and I attended a local support group for parents who had lost children. As we went around the table, each person or couple, introduced themselves and told how their child had passed. The causes varied, ranging from cancer, to overdoses, to accidents. When it was our turn, and we said that Peyton had taken his life, it was as though the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. People seemed to inch away from us, and all eye contact was averted. We went to the meeting to find support and understanding, and instead what we found was misunderstanding and ejection. When the meeting was over, the good byes were short and curt. Lisa and I both greed to never go back.
The other reason I saw a need for education were the comments on social media after Peyton's death. His mother and I both told Peyton's story to the media, and it was picked up by news outlets as far away as England. I made the mistake of reading the comments after the stories. Yes, there were quite a few that expressed their sympathy and condolences. Unfortunately, there were those that whether through lack of knowledge or cruelty made some hideous comments. They blamed Jacki and me for Peyton's death, said we were bad parents, that they would have handled things differently, and even classed Peyton a coward for taking the "easy way out".
It wasn't until we found our Survivors of Suicide support group that we truly felt welcome. Every person in that room could empathize with our story, and we were all comfortable sharing our feelings. The biggest thing that we were able to get from our group was knowing that we were not alone on our journey. What I truly found remarkable is how many other people had similar stories. It didn't matter if it was a child, sibling, or spouse that was lost, many of us were blind sided by their suicide. We all look back with 20/20 hindsight thinking about having seen the warning signs, but not knowing what they meant. We all talked about how IF we had known more, IF we had known what to look for, IF we had known how to deal with our loved one, then maybe things would have turned out differently in the end. It was meetings like this that helped me understand what had happened in Peyton's mind.
Facebook proved to be a blessing as well. I was able to read, post, reply, and converse with others who have lost loved ones. Once again, it was an amazing learning experience for me. Sadly, there were so many others who have walked down the same path as me. By talking to these people, I heard their stories, felt their pain, and learned more about battles with mental health issues, substance abuse, bullying, harassment, and ultimately, suicide. After I while, I went from asking questions to answering questions. Not only did it help others, but I found it helped me. It gave me a sense of purpose and belonging. It was through these interactions that I learned the importance of talking about suicide and mental health as well as educating others.
About a month after Peyton's death, I received an email from Matt Maudlin, a coach at Wunderlich Intermediate School, asking if I would like to tell Peyton's story to the students at Wunderlich's annual character building assemblies. Although I had been teaching for more than 20 years, this would be different for me. I had never stood on a stage and spoken to that many students at once. I was shaky and inconsistent, but I made it through, was applauded, and most of all thanked by the students. I knew then and thee that I needed to keep talking. Each time I spoke it became easier to tell Peyton's story, and the students got more out of it. One day, as I was going through my presentation, I saw a student get up, whisper to his teacher, and both walked out together. I later came to find out that not only had the young man had been thinking about taking his life, but he was in possession of the knife that he was going to use. It was the first time he had heard that he was not alone in what he was feeling, and it was okay to talk about it and ask for help.
So that brigs us back to the question at hand, what can we do to help kids and stop suicide and suicide attempts? The answer is easy, talk and educate. We as a community, need to talk to our kids, and there is no better place than a school. There are those that will say it is the job of the parents, but remember that many of these parents grew up in the same era of ignorance and denial as I did. They are not equipped to do it. There are those that will say it is a waste of valuable class time. To them, I would tell them to take a look at some of the things that learning time are sacrificed for. From pep rallies to class ring assemblies, class time is taken away, so why not something that actually benefits the students. And speaking of students, schools are churning out students that know nothing but academics. They load up on AP and advanced classes in hopes of improving their class rank and getting into a good college. What they don't have is a sense of what is going on in the world around them. They can solve complex equations, quote Shakespeare and Milton, and build robots, but have not learned that it is okay to not be okay.
Some schools have become proactive and are getting out in front of this. They require all students to take classes where they can learn about planning for the future, dealing with adversity, and making smart decisions. They are taught about the symptoms of mental health issues and the warning signs that some one might be suicidal. Unfortunately, there are others that are still reactive. They will call in counselors, answer questions of those brave enough to ask and send them back to class, leaving the others to sit and wonder what is wrong with them, why do they feel so alone, so sad, so willing to die. It is time to break the silence, break the stigma, and save our kids. Let's have a conversation about suicide and mental health and Save Kid's Lives.