Friday, November 21, 2008

Suicide culture?

This article, in the Des Moines Register caught my eye the other day:

Southeast Polk students, staff mourn another death

The death of a Southeast Polk High School senior this week marks the community’s fourth teenage suicide in seven months.

A younger sibling found the body of Jeffery Raymond, 18, at their Altoona home after school Monday, school officials confirmed Tuesday. Raymond’s manner of death wasn’t immediately known.

Officials at the Polk County medical examiner’s office did not return a telephone call Tuesday afternoon.School leaders had organized a task force to study a so-called “suicide culture” after the area’s third teenage suicide in September. The first two suicides were in April and August. All were teenage boys.

Superintendent Tom Downs said none of the suicides appeared to be connected. “Someone said, 'What’s the common denominator?’” Downs said. “I said mental health and just the tragedy of death and the frailty of life. I wish I could find the magic key.”

I do not have an adolescent, and I'm no pro on the age, but the urge to assume this kind of thing is always all about some sort of irrational teenage trend always bothers me. In the next graph of this story, we learn that Raymond had lost his dad a year-and-a-half earlier, and was currently living with his step-mother and three younger siblings. Doesn't that sound traumatic enough to prompt depression and suicide?

And the task force (eye roll). Yes, it's good to understand these things...but I'm envisioning some earnest, well-intentioned adults coming up with a cheesy intervention designed to convince kids not to commit suicide and that will do absolutely nothing. I know that sounds cynical, but...I find a lot of these campaigns (remember "Just say no?") well intentioned adult mis-steps.

This story reminds me of another story, one I wrote about in my book

Sometime in 2001, 15-year-old Daniel Dombrowski crashed into a tree in the middle of East Haddam, Connecticut. Six months later, Daniel's 13-year-old younger brother, Michael, and his friend, Jeffrey Barton, 15, deliberately crashed an SUV they were driving into the same tree, killing themselves. The town was so freaked out, they called the tree "the suicide tree" and had it cut down--lest there be more copy cats.

It didn't seem to occur to them that that tree had particular significance for one of the boys...that this wasn't some irrational teenage suicide trend, but one boy's expression of his grief, and his inability to go on. (And frankly, I don't know what was going on with the other kid. The newspapers say he was "troubled," but do we trust the newspapers?)

To me, the common thread in both these stories is loss, grief, depression, and the way that this experience can consume you and make it difficult to go on--especially when the society around you is saying get over it. I find the community commenters, in these cases, shocking and dense. If this is what these kids are surrounded by, no wonder they think there's no other way out of the pain.

Loss and grief will bring an older, more seasoned person to their knees. At a younger age, it is, I would say, potentially life-threatening--just as these kids demnstrated. You have fewer tools to cope. How about helping kids--all of us--understand loss and grief, rather than hysterically pulling down trees--or calling in a task force to combat the "trend" of teen suicide?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I knew jeffrey raymond. he was my best friend and he was a really good friend to me he was there for me when i was sick he was there when i had problems that i need to talk to someone about. i was there for him when he needed someone to talk to. we told eachother everything. even though he had a girl friend who didnt really like me he still hungout with me. and i respected him alot. i carede about him so much. and when his sister called me and told me what had happened i was so crushed. i felt like my whole world was tumbling down and i had noone. he helped me change my life. and if it werent for him id probably be dead. he helped me get out of my suicide. and i only wish and i prayed that i could have done the same for him. after his death i was tempted to commite suicide but i didnt cause i remembered what he told me and i knew that he wouldnt want me to do it. its because of him that i am alive 2day and i pray everyday for his family and his friends. we all miss him and i know that i will never ever forget him. he was my heart and soul. my whole life. and it still hurts everyday knowing that when i wake up i will never see him or be able to talk to him. but i cope with it but its so hard. he will never be forgotten.