Peter Schworm and Ellen Ishkanian wrote an article in today’s Globe about what communities are doing to deal with teen suicide, with an emphasis on Newton and speaking openly about the recent suicides.
Contrary to what Dr. Susan Swick, Newton Wellesley Hospital’s chief of child and adolescent psychiatry, reportedly said Tuesday night about suicide not being contagious, this article references Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who said, “Between 1 percent and 5 percent of all reported suicides result from a phenomenon specialists call contagion, or copycat, suicides.”
I’m relieved to see that somebody corrected Swick (every journalist should know that there is such a thing as copycat suicides). And I’m very pleased to know that school and city administrators are not being evasive about these suicides. They’re in a tough position. They want to protect the privacy of the families but their job is to protect the safety of the rest of the students in the school system.
So, here’s what I want to know: When does the focus change from helping kids cope with this trauma to understanding why this is happening in the first place and how do we prevent it from happening again.
It’s hard to talk about this without someone saying, “It’s too soon” or “This isn’t the time and place.” But when is it the time and place? Should we use this opportunity to discuss stress in our high schools?
Perhaps stress was not a factor in the decisions that Karen, Katie and Roee made, but we know from the 2012-2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey that 74% of high school students describe their lives as “somewhat or very stressful.” The same survey tells us that school pressure increased 5% over just two years. And, 9% of high schoolers had seriously considered suicide (not necessarily connected to stress) in the year prior to the survey.
It’s taken me a long time to understand the pressure placed on Newton South students. I assume North isn’t much different but I don’t know. And we certainly aren’t the only school district in the country where kids get the message that if they aren’t successful in high school, their lives are doomed.
We need to look at the messages we send our kids. We live in a culture where it’s not unusual for a teacher to tell his 9th graders that if they don’t take Honors Math, they won’t get into an Ivy League College. That should not be ok.
Our schools do so much for our children that is right. It is my opinion that helping them manage stress is not on that list.
It is time for school administrators, teachers, and parents to look inward, not just to see what we can do in the aftermath of tragedy, but to question what we should be doing differently.