A Loss Too Hard to Bear
This month, our community faces the loss of another young person, a teenager who ended his life before it even began. In a time and country where so many teenagers have a hopeful future, it is hard to understand the teenager who feels a level of despair so overwhelming, so all consuming that suicide is the only answer they can find.
But, according to the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15-19 year olds. In truth, we are hearing about teen suicides more and more frequently; as parents and educators, we struggle to find the cause. The parents of 16 year old Daniel Briggs feel bullying was the primary factor in their son’s suicide. In Newton, MA, the community and school are reeling from the third suicide in one school year. Controversy has been raised by the suggestion that the “High Achiever Culture” in schools is creating pressure that some students simply cannot take. (http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2014/02/newton-suicide-stress) Or maybe science is a factor. In her article in the Boston Globe, Teen Brains Make Them Vulnerable to Suicide, Jan Brogan explores the theory that teens are very susceptible to suicide because their brains develop in an unbalanced way. The article explains
“Researchers have long known that the basic problem with the teenage brain is the “asymmetric” or unbalanced way the brain develops, said Dr. Timothy Wilens, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital specializing in adolescents, addictions, and attention deficit disorder.
The hippocampus and amygdala, which Wilens calls the “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” part of the brain, feels and stores emotions and is associated with impulses. It matures well ahead of the section of the brain that regulates those emotions and impulses, the prefrontal cortex.
Throughout the teenage years and up until about age 25, this executive section of the brain, also responsible for planning and decision, lags behind, Wilens says.
Until the front part of the brain catches up, if kids get sad, “they really experience sadness un-tethered.” He adds. “It’s why first love really does break the heart.” (http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/2014/03/09/brain-development-makes-teens-more-vulnerable-suicide-and-mood-disorders)
But whether it is bullying, academic pressure or simple brain development, schools must face the difficult question: How do we respond to this tragedy?
More importantly, how do we prevent it from happening again?
In the past, fear of “copy cat” suicides influenced schools to avoid talking forthrightly about the suicide to students on a large scale. But this approach can seem insensitive to the victim’s family. Locally, there were allegations that schools as far away as Pennsylvania honored the death of Daniel Briggs with a moment of silence and his own school did not. This may have happened because the traditional response to tragedies such as this has been to avoid large scale discussion, not out of insensitivity, but as a prevention tactic.
In Newton, they are changing that. Officials at the school are taking steps to confront the issue directly and openly. Jon Mattleman, who directs Needham Youth Services, explains
“Once there’s been a completed suicide, someone has stepped over this threshold, and someone at risk now thinks, ‘This is a possibility,’ ” said Mattleman. “When there’s a youth suicide, it’s so tragic. When there’s more than one, it’s terrifying. It’s a call for parents to have a conversation with their kids.” (https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/02/15/amid-tragedy-teen-suicide-schools-try-confront-issue-squarely/rKakxdFBGGkAvAaevjBdoI/story.html)
And it may be time for schools to have more conversations about this as well. I strongly recommend reading the above article as it goes on to explain that it may be time to break the silence and change the way we approach the tragedy of teen suicide.
After all, if we save even one more child by increasing awareness, isn’t it worth it? In honor of Daniel Briggs and all the others, we need to do all we can to help our young people find their way back to hope.
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