The anguishing ‘why’ of teen suicides
By Petula Dvorak
This Northern Virginia high school got two years.
Two graduations without memorials, two football seasons without candlelight vigils and flowers on the field, two years without the crisis counselors setting up crash units to help the students of W.T. Woodson High School wrap their heads around the idea that the kid sitting next to them in math class stepped in front of a train or pulled a trigger or jumped from a building.
The self-inflicted death toll at Woodson reached six in three years during that time. All boys, most of them high achievers — a football captain, a Boy Scout, AP students, a track star — all shining bright on the outside.
In 2014, administrators ordered up a team of mental health professionals, encouraged kids in the high-achieving bubble to de-stress and held lemonade socials.
It seemed to work.
Then, last week, the awful feeling returned. The confusion, tears in the hallway, hushed words after one of their students — a 16-year-old — killed himself.
The teen was a junior, a member of the Air Force Junior ROTC, he played ultimate Frisbee, was in the Advanced Men’s Chorus, and he did a mean beatbox.
“My lovely little brother … took his own life on April 27th 2017,” his sister wrote on her Facebook page. “I have no words but to say that I really, really love and miss my brother. He was such a bright, kind, and caring person. Also, he was the sweetest brother to me and son to my parents.”
His body was found at 1:30 Thursday, according to Fairfax County Police, when his friends were all in class.
So now Woodson is back to the dark, confusing world of “why,” though no one I contacted at the high school wanted to talk about it. The pain and grief there coincides with a huge, nationwide discussion about teen suicide, sparked by the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why.”
In fact, even before Woodson’s principal sent out the difficult letter about the teen’s death last week, the Fairfax County school system had spoken to parents about suicide.
It remains a topic often accompanied by silence, despite the fact that it was the second leading cause of death among American teens in 2014 — behind accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That year, 1,834 kids between 15 and 19 killed themselves, according to those statistics.
“We are hearing from some parents that they are concerned about a new Netflix series released on March 31, 2017, that is attracting the attention of many young people. The series is called ‘13 Reasons Why,’ and focuses on the suicide of a teenage girl,” the letter to Fairfax parents said.
The show is based on Jay Asher’s young adult novel about 13 tapes recorded by a suicidal teen before her death, each one explaining how someone mistreated her and contributed to her end.
Some people think the show’s graphic depiction of suicide and silence-shattering boldness is incredibly valuable. It opens up important conversations about bullying, rape, mental health and suicide. Others worry it romanticizes the revenge scenario so familiar to people with suicidal thoughts and could fuel a copy-cat contagion among the people already roller-coastering the hormone highway.
School districts have reported increases in self-harming among kids who have watched it, and The National Association of School Psychologists posted some ways to talk about it. In Fairfax, school leaders gave parents a heads-up.
“The decision to watch this series, and whether to allow your teen to watch, will be a personal one for your family,” Fairfax parents were told. “However, as this has become very popular with the youth and may negatively impact some individuals, we wanted to make you aware of the series.”
It’s delicate, difficult ground to tread.
The knee-jerk reaction to suicide is silence. But silence is not hope.
And hope — experts say — is crucial.
“Conveying hope with a loved one is your best defense against suicide,” the experts at the Ohio State University Suicide Prevention team wrote. “It is always better to overreact than to underreact.”
Giving kids hope that next year will be better, that their parents’ love and approval won’t depend on grades, that they’ll find better friends when they go to college or start a job, that their teen years do not define them.
At Woodson and so many other high schools across the country, students need that message.
Petula Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist.