None of my experiences as a former trained support group facilitator, teacher, or private school director can compare to the devastating experience that I had when one of my classmates in 9th grade committed suicide.
Dave was new in our class. He used to sit in the back of the classroom. He was shy, silent, and almost invisible. None of us 9th graders really knew he even existed – until he died.
The morning our English teacher told us the sad news that Dave had died, everyone reacted with “Who?”
All of us 9th graders went to his funeral. As 9th graders, even though we didn’t understand or know about his life, we subconsciously did understand his death. Dave did not feel like he belonged, there were no peers that he was close to, his academic courses were too challenging, and there was no parent that could understand him. At his funeral we learned that at the time of his death, Dave was filled with alcohol and various household poisons. His death was so painful and excruciating – he died trying to reach for the phone.
Causes of Teen Suicide
Dave’s agonizing and painful death left a memorable impact on me and affected not only my work as a support group facilitator but also my work as an English teacher. Years after Dave’s death I realized that he was a poet, a writer, or what we would classify as an emotionally disabled student. In Dave’s memory, I began a literary club for my students at my public school and called our published literary magazine ‘Reflections’. My students didn’t know it stood for ‘reflections of unheard souls’.
No research studies can be as revealing for the causes of teen suicide as a literary magazine can. What my students could not express to anyone verbally, they were able to express in their poetry, stories, essays, and drawings. The feeling of not belonging, the troubles with a girlfriend or boyfriend, the absence of parental interest, the trouble with too much parental interference, academic stress, too high expectations, sexual identification confusion, unrecognized depression, legal problems, substance abuse, problems with other peers, not being able to be who you are meant to be – any of those causes were enough for a teen to commit suicide.
Signs and Symptoms of Teen Suicide
Many years after I had stopped working as a public school English teacher, a young man called my name while I was at the check-out counter at a Costco store. I had no idea who this tall handsome young man in his twenties was. “You probably don’t remember me. I was in your 10th grade English class and I wrote for your literary magazine. I just wanted you to know how much being able to write for that magazine made a difference in my life. I submitted all of my writings under anonymous because I was very suicidal back then. I am a published author today and I want to thank you for that.”
After my Costco visit, I did begin to remember who this now handsome young writer used to be. I remembered that he used to sit in the back of the classroom and that he never spoke, not to me, not to any of his classmates, not to any of his other peers. He would sit alone during lunch time. His face was plagued by teen skin problems. No parent ever came to a teacher-parent conference. His grades were barely passing. He was another ‘Dave’.
I wonder if we would have had Facebook back then if he would have written about his struggles with life online. I doubt it. I believe instead of learning to express his inner agony in words, he probably would have researched the internet on how to commit suicide.
Three Major Personality Types for Teen Suicides
Both my former student and my former classmate Dave can be considered emotionally disabled students. Being aware that emotionally disabled or emotionally disturbed students are prime candidates for teen suicide might make a difference for any educator, teacher, or even parent.
According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Regulations: Part 300 / A / 300.8 / c / 4 / (i), an emotional disturbance or emotional disability is present “if a child exhibits one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.”
The second personality type of students that I encountered as a support group facilitator included students that were the opposites of emotionally disabled students. Those are the students that are high achievers, active, in the public eye, and most often admired by their peers. During my support group sessions I learned from my football players, class presidents, and school community representatives that most often their parents were the cause of why they sometimes felt like ending their lives. “The expectations are too high. No matter what you do, it is just never enough. My parents want me to be like them. But I am not like them.”
The third personality type of teen likely to commit suicide were the kinds of students I was the least likely prepared for, the instantaneous killers. “I am an instant killer” was how Emily, one of my support group students explained it to me. I had never thought about suicide as something that I would do. If anything, I thought it was stupid and an easy way out. But when my boyfriend broke up with me, I was so devastated; I just didn’t want to live anymore.”
Emily’s explanation summarized well my reaction to her suicide attempt. I would have never anticipated a girl like her trying to end her life. But then, Emily never anticipated her boyfriend breaking up with her either.
Prevention of Suicide
As I think back of my classmate Dave, my literary magazine contributor turned author, and Emily, I am wondering who could have prevented either one of them to commit suicide or attempt suicide. For my classmate Dave, a phone call was too late. For my football player, the parents were too involved. For Emily, her parents didn’t matter. The only common factor among the three that really mattered to all of them were – their teachers.
Having been a teacher for more than 30 years I am well aware of the amount of work that teachers already have to do. Do we really want to add one more item? Preventing our teens from committing suicide or attempting to commit suicide should be left to parents, mental health care professionals, phone hot lines, or peers. Unfortunately, as my experience with teen suicide and teen suicide attempts have shown, those resources are limited and often come too late.
Today’s increasing numbers and statistics of teen suicide and teen suicide attempts frighten me. What frightens me even more is the fact that many of those suicides could be prevented through an increased awareness about the causes, signs, symptoms, and personality types of teen suicides by teachers. More than anyone else, teachers can notice a teen’s behavior. Teachers can offer a place for students to express their feelings in writing. Teachers can use literature as a means to prepare students for unexpected devastating events and how to react to them. And finally, simply by being aware, teachers can refer a student to the appropriate help that a suicidal teen might need.
Throughout my life, I keep thinking back to my 9th grade classmate Dave and his painful and excruciating death. I do understand why we, his classmates, could not anticipate or prevent his suicide. I do wonder though if any of my teachers would have paid attention, if he wouldn’t be still alive today.
More from Jasmine Thomas:
Back to School: Memorable & Innovative Tips to Help Your Child with Anxiety & Stress
Back to School: Depression in Girls – Tips for the New School Year
Back to School: Beware of Trichotillomania – The Habit to Pull Out Hair