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?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Boy in the bubble: 8 ½ years on the inside

A few years ago, I ended up at the American Folk Art Museum quite by accident. A friend was visiting from out of town, and we’d intended to go to the newly opened MOMA. But the lines were insane. Next door, at the AFAM, however, there were no lines at all. So we thought, what the heck? It’s a great museum. But what very much caught my attention was an exhibit on prison art.

To be honest, I don’t remember the details. But the idea that these people were expressing what it was like to live in captivity, in close quarters, without much hope of getting out, suddenly struck a nerve. My brother, in a sense, was a prisoner. He hadn’t done anything wrong. His body, or rather his immune system, had. But the end result was the same: He ended up confined to 10 foot by 10 foot room for the rest of his life.

As a kid, I couldn’t think my way into what it felt like to be him. And he’d been in there so long that it had become normal to me. It never occurred to me, or rarely, that it didn’t necessarily feel normal to him. Plus he was my invincible older brother, the master of every situation. The work in this exhibit revealed, painfully, that that probably was not the case. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know. It was painful.

I was reminded of it all again, today, when I opened a book called Seasons of Captivity: The Inner World of POWS. It was recommended to me by a friend, who knows I’m interested in the psychology of place. But what really struck me, even just in the introduction, was that I just couldn’t stop thinking about Ted. Here’s one quote that did me in:

“This was the first time we got out, without our blindfolds, from the courtyard. An interesting thing happened: Suddenly I discovered the horizon. Out there, on the edge of the desert, lay the infinite horizon. I felt dizzy. All these years I had seen nothing beyond the eighteen meters of our room and courtyard; only the birds up in the sky.”

It reminded me of the way my brother, on the few times he came out in the sterile space suit that allowed him to leave his hospital room, would stand and stare up at the trees. He loved, he said, to look up at the trees. Now I can appreciate better how wonderous that must have been for him. But it’s a painful realization. Imagine it being a novelty, a luxury, even, to look up and see the branches of a tree outlined against the sky.