Suicide is a serious and widespread issue for many students and in turn schools. Unfortunately the magnitude of this issue is sometimes only realized after a death occurs or even more than one. Administrators and principals in the Coeur d’Alene School District recently held a management retreat to address the issue of suicide prevention. The special session was the result of four tragic suicides committed students within the district in the past 15 months. One of the saddest things about this brief blurb in the local paper was the comment posted to the newspaper’s online website, which said, “Why are we coddling these people and using taxpayer money to do it? School is only to teach the 3 R’s, nothing more. And only through the 6th grade, then these parasites are on their own!” [Can only hope this person is not a parent or at least has no children under his roof!]
The callousness of the writer, who is clearly fortunate to not have had loved ones struggle with suicide or mental illness, is stunning. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens and young adults from 15 to 24 years in the United States. The National Health Association estimates that up to 2.5% of children and 8.3% of teens in the United States suffer from depression. At any given time, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology estimates that about 5% of children are suffering from depression.
And what about our children with special needs? The data is limited, but Steve Forness, professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences at the University of California, estimates that 30 to 40% of students in ED classes and 10 to 20% of students in LD classes suffer from depression. Experts believe there is no mystery as to why students with special needs are more prone to depression. These children may be predisposed to depression due to biological factors related to their disorders. In addition these kids may suffer from the stigma of having a disorder, and their disabilities may make them stand out to their peers. As a result, children with special needs are two to three times more likely to be victims of bullying than their non-disabled peers. A study in a British journal stated that 60% of students with special needs reported being bullied compared to 25% of their non-disabled peers. The unfortunate reality even faced with empirical and reliable subjective data from parents and other sources, many schools continue to deny that there is an issue with bullying especially towards students with special needs. If only denying a problem could make it true, but it cannot.
Children with special needs are not alone with higher rates of depression. Many experts believe that gifted students are also prone to depression. These are the students who tend to be perfectionists and who are overly harsh in their self-criticism. According to James Webb, the founder and co-director of Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted, a “B” on a report card can be shattering to a gifted student. Furthermore, Webb argues that these students can suffer from “existential depressions,” where they confront basic issues of existence, death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness—all issues that are difficult and painful for any 16- to 18-year-old to confront. The even larger problem here is that given the good and even exceptional grades that gifted students receive, schools refuse to even consider these students for a case study, even in the face of a clear and imminent risk to the student’s emotional well being in school.
Fortunately, organizations like the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), as well as the Coeur d’Alene School District, are attempting to be proactive in an effort to help depressed students and head off potential suicides. NASP, which states that suicides may be preventable, offers detailed information and suggestions on risk factors, warning signs, what to do, and the role of the school in suicide prevention. Many, many, many other groups are also recognizing this sobering issue and confronting it. Parents must be aware that our children are at risk for depression. We must not be afraid to seek help in the form of an IEP or out of school mental health services, when we suspect our children are in trouble emotionally, even when that student is getting average or above average grades.