Multiple suicides plague some area schools

A 17-year Woodbury High School student killed herself yesterday. A senior boy at the same school killed himself a few weeks ago. A 9th grader in Mounds View killed herself at her home last weekend. She wasn’t the first student in the district this year to take her own life, either.

I’ve just violated the experts’ advice for how the media should report on teen suicide.

“The best advice I can give you is it’s not a headline story; it’s not a front page story or above the fold,” Dr. Dan Reidenberg of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) told me this afternoon when I asked him for advice on reporting on the issue of teen suicide in the wake of these latest suicides. “The story should be preventive and educational in approach.”

Dr. Reidenberg was at the Mounds View Woodbury (Note: Dr. Reidenberg misspoke during the interview and originally indicated Woodbury) school this morning to help teachers anticipate what the students needed today. He’ll make a community presentation next Tuesday. “Some (teachers) don’t want to deal with this at all. Some are grieving themselves. They feel very guilty. They feel very responsible that they should have known more or done more. Some are very angry; they’re angry that these things have occurred and the districts haven’t done more. Some are angry at the students. They really want to know what they can do so this doesn’t happen again.”

“The teachers are really struggling with this. They want information and they want to get a message out to students,” he said. But he said the biggest challenge teachers and schools face is that students usually know more about the suicide before they do because of social networks. “That poses a tremendous challenge for schools and teachers with what they can and can’t do around helping their students.”

Reidenberg says the extent to which teachers can help depends on school policies. “Some school policies don’t permit you to speak at all about a suicide; there’s only a message that goes out from the principal or the superintendent and they’re not allowed to do anything. Other schools are allowed to let students grieve and talk about the loss that they’re suffering, but it needs to have some boundaries and parameters around that so that it doesn’t take over their lives and it doesn’t take over the reason that they’re there, which is to go to school.”

He says the most important thing in the wake of a suicide, is to prevent another one — a copycat suicide. “It’s not recommended to have a memorial at the school, or a special chair for the student who’s no longer there, or a mural, or a painting, or even a page in a yearbook ” he said. “That potentially is a risky kind of thing. So we help the schools learn how to teach the kids appropriately and move on with their life — being able to move on with their friend… but not have it raise the risk for those who might be vulnerable.”

The rate of teen suicide is up slightly in Minnesota, Reidenberg reports, but not to a statistically significant degree. Nationwide, about 11 kids kill themselves every day — about 95 people in all age groups kill themselves each day and there is no single time of the year when it’s clearly more common. “It’s a myth that suicides occur more frequently around the holidays. November and December are the lowest months of the year when suicides occur,” he said.

“Ninety percent of the people who die by suicide have a psychiatric illness at the time of their death,” he said. “It’s not just one thing that leads to a suicide. People often think it’s one thing that happens, and it might be the last thing that happened, but somebody doesn’t just wake up in the morning and say, ‘today is my last day.'”

These are the warning signs of suicide, according to Reidenberg:

— Suicide is expressed. People talking about or writing about suicide. Looking for suicide sites on the Internet.

— Dramatic mood changes.

— School challenges that come about seemingly unexpected. High-risk behaviors — driving more erratically or climbing onto high places and jumping down, he said.

— Changes in substance abuse. “Although we don’t want kids to be using substances at all,” Dr. Reidenberg said, “when there’s a marked change in what they’re using or how frequently they’re using, we want people to pay attention to them.”

— Behavior changes in school, such as irritability, fighting with everybody all the time. Fighting with peers or faculty.

— Withdrawing from social things they used to be involved with.

“Suicide is one of the most preventable deaths there is, ” he said. “But until we break through this stigma and shame around the word, that it’s not a character flaw or a moral deficiency, then we’re going to continue to see these things happen.”

Listen to the entire interview.