The 'S' Word: What Schools Are Missing About Suicide

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I was a young student teacher in a public middle school in New York City when it first happened.

“I hate myself,” he said forlornly.

“He” was a sixth grader who my supervising teacher was having trouble with and asked me to help in the hallway. As I straightened my starched pink cotton shirt and swept my hair to the side, I took a deep breath so that I could stall for time. I was trying to get beyond my own heartache to think of something compassionate to say when the bell rang, and my sad friend ran away. When I expressed my concerns to his teacher, she simply gave me a far-away kind of half smile.

In my pain for this child, who was only 11, I felt I needed to act. I ran down the long, grey cinder-block hallway, my patent leather shoes squeaking as I moved. I marched into the guidance counselor’s office. I knew that I couldn’t go over my supervising teacher’s head by reporting what had just happened, so, I asked a more general question of the young female counselor.

“What is your suicide prevention policy here?” I asked bluntly.

She didn’t miss a beat in her reply: “If we don’t talk about suicide with students, it won’t happen.”

With that, she pivoted on her heel, picked up some files, and began putting them away in a grey metal filing cabinet.

It may seem like I was overreacting, but I remember the first time I had the thought that I hated myself. My first suicidal thoughts were not too far behind. For me, it was junior year of high school. As I sat in my black Pontiac Grand Am feeling the pressure of applying to college, I began to wonder where there was a wall that I could smack my car into. I told no one. Two years later, I would be hospitalized for suicidal thoughts and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

As a middle school teacher, I thought that I could fold up my experiences with suicidal thoughts and bipolar like a handkerchief and stuff them deep into my pocket. After all, I was now a working professional. But, little by little, students sought me out to tell me of their self-hatred, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts. I was told each time by the administration that I should not interfere, but instead send them to the guidance counselor.

After doing this enough times and seeing no results, I became frustrated and left teaching to become a mental health advocate. And, while I became successful training mental health professionals, I never forgot my former students. Finally, I reached out to the high school that I graduated from in New Jersey, to try to speak to students about my experience with suicidal thoughts and bipolar disorder.

My conversation with the principal at my former high school went something like this:

Me: “Hi there, I’m an alumni of your high school, and I’d like to speak to your students about how I overcame suicidal thoughts, and began to live a happy and successful life.”

The principal: “I’m sorry Ms. Grossman, but our students just don’t struggle like that. I know because I open my doors to have lunch with them, and they would tell me if this were going on.”

Me: “Well, could I maybe speak to your teachers so that they have awareness just in case a student struggles in this way?”

The principal: “I will have the guidance department call you to follow up about this.”

This conversation happened about four years ago, and I’m still waiting to get this call. I can also say with great certainty that as a high school student, the last thing that I was going to do was tell my principal over lunch about my suicidal thoughts.

Schools are missing the mark when it comes to suicide, and with dire consequences. In a Center for Disease Control Study that started in 1999 and continued for 15 years, it was discovered that nationally, there was a 200 percent suicide increase in girls ages 10 to 14. The University of Pennsylvania had 12 suicides between February 2013 and November 2016.

Based on my experience, one thing has become obvious—we need to talk to young people about suicide, and assess for risk in schools. Children spend more time with their teachers at school than they do with their own parents, so we need to make sure that our schools are looking out for not just students’ academic achievement, but their emotional well-being as well.

What can you do as a parent if this is not happening in your child’s school? Well, another thing that I learned while a teacher is that parents have power. Don’t be afraid as a parent to ask what your child’s school policy is around suicide prevention. Show up at school board meetings, and make sure that suicide gets on the agenda. Write emails to your superintendent expressing your concerns. The bottom line is—we all need to act to protect the lives of our children.

I know another thing from experience— secrets and silence create the absolute perfect breeding ground for the snake that is suicide. When suicide becomes reduced to the “s” word, an unmentionable topic that we whisper about in hushed tones after our children’s bedtimes, the snake has the power to strike.

I don’t know what happened to my 11-year-old student, but I think about him often. I dedicate this piece to him and the numerous students after him who struggled without getting the support that they needed. I know that we can do better—and it all starts with one person being brave enough to raise his or her voice to save our children’s lives. I hope that voice will be yours.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National
Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free,
24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please
visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database
of resources.