Op-ed column: Parents need communication to prevent teen suicides
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death, behind accidents and homicides, for youths between 15 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the fourth-leading cause of death for children between 10 and 14. To add to these grim statistics, the National Institutes of Health believes there may be up to 25 suicides attempted for each one that is completed. This hidden epidemic is too easy for society to ignore, rather than face the very real consequences of the actions kids take.
As a parent, I could not believe that I found out about three recent suicides in the Schenectady High School and Career Center from reading The Daily Gazette online, instead of finding out directly from the school district. I realize that there is a fear of increasing the risk of other students committing suicide when the issue is brought out into the open, but there is also a risk to students when the school district does not share information with parents in a timely manner.
A young lady dies in November.
Another young lady dies in late February. And last weekend, another student commits suicide, and another student attempts suicide.
Parents find out about the multiple teen deaths and suicide attempts when they read The Daily Gazette and other area papers on March 3 and 4. And then school district sends out a letter to the parents and posts it on-line.
This time line is horrifying. Why didn’t the school district share the information with parents, in a discreet manner, after the first suicide in November? Or especially after the young lady’s death in February? Why should it be up to the district administrators to play God with decisions on when to communicate with parents about teen suicides? Wouldn’t it be better to err on the side of open communication with families? I know I would rather know about any teen suicides in the area and have the chance to immediately talk to my kids, find out if they knew the person and double check to see how everything is going — instead of having my head in the sand and not know what is going on. There is no way to look back to see whether open communication with parents about the first or second suicide could have made a difference for the third young lady, but open communication can be life-saving for future students. Parents should have the right to be informed of any suicide deaths at the high school.
I realize that this is a hectic time of year for board members, administrators and staff, but I hope the Schenectady School District will consider developing a policy on how teen suicides will be handled, consistently, within the district and how communication channels will be maintained between administration, staff, students and families. In a perfect world, this would be a policy that would never have to be used. Unfortunately, such a policy will probably be needed sometime in the future. One part of the policy could be to mail a letter to parents if there is a teen suicide. The costs of the mailings could add up, but is this an investment that could be invaluable.
Besides open communication between the school and home, why not try to have a group effort as parents to have our children, and their friends, add us to their MySpace and Facebook pages as friends? Teachers and administrators could also try to get their students to add them as friends. I know that kids need some privacy, but this would provide another safety net for kids. It seems as though it is harder for parents to stay connected with other parents in today’s world, but we could all try to learn the on-line communication tools and try to look out for not only for our own children, but each other’s kids as well.
What plans does the Schenectady School District have to actively prevent future teen suicides within the community? The letter posted on-line discussed a community forum for students, parents and staff. Will this be one part of a suicide prevention plan or a one-time effort, which will be forgotten by many of the students and parents in a few months? How will the district make long-term changes in student, parent and staff knowledge of the warning signs of suicide and local resources that are available?
Prevention education can help to make a difference if parents and students learn to recognize warning signs, communicate openly with each other about this issue and call for help when needed. We cannot turn the clock back, but, together, Schenectady parents, students, school staff and community members can make a difference for the future.