My biggest fear as an attorney representing families of students with special needs is losing a student to suicide. To date I have not lost one. Currently, we are on the cusp of the long, dark months of winter, in which many suppose that the risk of suicide increases around the holiday season when persons who are isolated or without strong social support systems may be more vulnerable to attempting suicide. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the risk for death by suicide increases not in the winter months but in the spring, according to the CDC. For those of us who suffer from depression, the bright promise of spring and summer only serves to exacerbate symptoms. And for those who suffer from this darkness, summer and springtime can be deadly. And our youth are not immune to this troubling trend.
Something is wrong; something is terribly wrong. According to the CDC, approximately 4600 youth commit suicide yeach year. These children are shooting themselves (45%), suffocating themselves (40%), or poisoning themselves (8%). And for each teenager who completes a suicide, an additional ten other teens survive their attempts. Approximately 157,000 youth between 10 and 24 receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries. According to the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System that annually surveys 1,500 high school teens, 17% of respondents seriously contemplated suicide, 13.6% created a plan, and 8% attempted suicide in 2013. And according to NAMI, each "successful" suicide leaves behind 6 to 8 "survivors," who have been left devastated by the loss of their loved ones with the grief rippling through the deceased's community.
The CDC has outlined significant risk factors for teen suicide: history of previous suicide attempts; family history of suicide, history of depression or other mental illness; alcohol or drug abuse, stressful life event or loss, easy access to lethal methods, exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, and incarceration. We can speculate that the stress teenagers experience is only exacerbated as the weather warms: AP or other final exams, proms and other end of school activities, final decisions about college or post-high school work or career, the inevitable break up of senior year romances, and the list goes on.
One group of researchers from the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center argues that high school itself is a significant risk factor for suicide. An article titled, “Back to School Blues: Seasonality of Youth Suicide and the Academic Calendar” points out that teen suicide rates drop in the summer when teens are out of school. (Conversely, suicide rates for 19 year olds increase during the summer months). The authors of the report argue that risky behaviors that can lead not only to suicide but also to violence, sexual activity, and poor self-esteem are in fact originating in the high schools. Teens are “concentrated” in high schools where they vastly outnumber the adults, leading to a sort of Lord of the Flies scenario where teens “torture” each other through bullying as they jockey through the high school social strata.
We know that bullying leads to increased rates of depression, which in turn is an additional risk factor for teen suicide. According to researchers, in the 2007-2008 school year, 32% of students between 12 and 18 reported they had been bullied. According to the CDC, those numbers soar for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT). A 2009 survey of more than 7000 LGBT students between the ages of 13-21 revealed that 80% had been verbally harassed at school; 40% had been physically harassed; 60% felt unsafe at school; and 20% had been the victim of a physical assault at school. Perhaps it is not surprising to learn that LGBT teens are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.
Although it would be a stretch to say that school shootings peak during the spring months, some of the more notable acts of school violence have occurred in the spring: Two students killed and 22 others shot in Oregon in May 1998, the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007, and of course, Columbine in April 1999. We may never know the motives of these different school shooters, but we do know that many of them had histories of mental illness and that many of them had also been bullied.
Our youth are suffering, and they are suffering terribly. Far too many RIP pages are appearing on Facebook for teens who have committed suicide. (Were the thousands of Facebook friends gathering on these memorial pages there in life for the deceased? Did the deceased teen know there were others out there for him or her?) For this blog to attempt to offer advice for those who feel suicidal or comfort to those who have lost a loved one to suicide would be to marginalize the gravity of their need or grief. But there is help out there, and there are people who care. Additionally, we should all try to remember that those cocky, lovable adolescents whom we are raising or teaching and occasionally wishing to swat may be far more fragile than we realize. We should be alert and let them know we--their parents, teachers, or other adults in their lives--are here for them.