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Throughout the visits of the various speakers there has been one recurring theme that evokes condemnation, disgust, and disdain: Suicide. Most religions and most societies condemn it. But most people have entertained the idea of doing it.
When classes have been asked the question, "How many of you have thought of killing yourself?" the response has been over 50% for most years as will be noted in the following graph:
"How many of you have wanted to die?", about 50% responded affirmatively. "How many of you have ever attempted suicide?", there were no hands raised. Does that mean no student in my Death Education classes has ever attempted to kill themselves? I think not. When asked why kids wouldn't admit to attempting suicide, the typical responses were: " They would have to admit to being a failure because the suicide obviously did not succeed." "It's embarrassing to admit to such an act." "The person would not want others, like their parents or friends, to find out."
The entire school was polled about suicide in a questionnaire several years before. One of the questions was "How you ever seriously considered or tried to commit suicide?" The results were 36% YES and 64% NO.
Trauma is the leading cause of death among teenagers. It is closely followed by suicide. Discussing the reasons for this frightening statistic produced the following list:
If we were to look into the whole gamut of societal reasons for committing suicide, the following would have to be added to the above list:
A letter was received from a student that is relevant:
Committing suicide is a paradox. Suicide depends on the future for the outcome. Unfortunately there is no future. Of all the reasons for taking one's life, some people consider some of them justifiable even if there is no future. Too many times the reasons given for making an attempt on one's life are frivolous and temporary problems, and are created by a very narrow focus on the issue. A few individuals consider suicide an absolute taboo no matter how it is justified.
About 25% of the students have dealt directly with a potential suicide. It usually involved one of their peers. Possibly 20% have spent at least several hours trying to talk the person out of doing it. When asked if they thought the individual was joking the answer is almost always no. Often they thought the person would not actually go through with it but they did take the threat seriously. Rarely does the victim joke about such a serious matter. When they say they are contemplating suicide, they are. Threats of suicide are not to be taken lightly!
One of the greatest suicide tragedies is created when a parent, loved one, or child ends their life without the survivors knowing why. Think about it! Suicide is self-centered and selfish. A 10-year old boy loves his mom and has a great relationship with her. They live together, play together, and seemingly hold no secrets. Mom suddenly takes a fatal leap from a window while her son is at school. She leaves no note, showed no prior suicidal tendency, and failed royally in the communications field. Was the school notified and how did they treat the immediate issue? Did the son see the body? Was the son allowed to attend the funeral? Is anyone talking about the mother with him, or did she just cease to exist along with the strong love attachment they had? What a devastating psychological blow to the son! Without intervention by super-trained psychiatric personnel the boy will probably be filled with a host of emotions that are debilitating and not understood. He make take responsibility for his mom's death. Searching for reasons may become a life-long goal. There may be anger directed toward the mother for what she did. The typical reaction of others will only reinforce the devastation. Typically no one wants to talk to the son about the most tragic thing that could happen to him! More than likely the kid will see others act toward him with pity and with crafted comments in order to avoid coming close to having to discuss the mom's death, the very thing that must be done.
One time, while I was attending Colgate University, a most gruesome scene was encountered in the bathroom. When I entered there was a friend who had just slashed his wrist with a razor blade because his girlfriend had decided to terminate their relationship. The blood was all over the mirror, white sinks, and floor. The contrast was startling. Not being versed in first aide procedures I relied on common sense. I took my thumb and placed it over the wound to stop the massive flow of blood. He offered no resistance to saving his life. I drove with one hand on the wound and one on the steering wheel to the university infirmary where the case was treated more with discipline rather than compassion. It seemed if he had admitted to this being a suicide attempt rather than being an accidental puncture wound he would have been dismissed from the university. My friend lived and graduated.
Somewhere between 50% and 60% of teenage suicides are associated with alcohol and/or drugs. It's not necessarily that the alcohol/drugs cause the suicide to occur. More likely, the suicidal individual gets involved in substance abuse to try and relieve a deep-seated depression and the condition is worsened. Over the years students have confirm this to be true.
When a teacher is told by a student they intend to commit suicide a real dilemma is set up. Our school policy was to immediately inform the administration and in turn they would inform the parents. There were times the parents should not be informed because of the impulsive action they may take against the student, and many times they are the reason creating the suicidal tendency. On the other hand, if the teacher decides to go it alone, tries to help the student to overcome their reason for the threat, and is unsuccessful, they are subject to legal judgments if the confidentiality is breached. The teacher should realize they might have a problem with guilt that might arise because of their inability to prevent the death. Consequently, many teachers do not wish to become involved and avoid it. Some kids, in turn, detecting a lack of compassion will not confide in teachers or guidance counselors to obtain psychological assistance.
Teaching Death Education puts one on the battlefield. Over the years several students indicated they were suicidal. The communication was usually by letter or note, but some were through private conversations. My reaction depended upon the student and the situation. In all cases two things were done: 1. To find out if the threat was real and constituted an immediate problem I asked, "If you took your life how would you do it?" and, 2. Using every technique possible, it was important to impress the distressed student that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. On occasion I did call the parent(s) after the student agreed. Normally this produced a change in the parents' interaction with the student and the imminent threat of the suicide was reduced or eliminated. On one occasion the mother became hostile and insinuated I was either exaggerating or downright lying about the daughter's suicidal tendencies.
The teachers received a directive from the Guidance Department pertaining to potential suicidal students. It stated, in part, that the district is studying the problem about suicides and would issue guidelines. (I am still waiting and it's been 8 years.) The directive went on to say, "As a classroom teacher, you may be the first to notice signs of suicidal thoughts or behavior. We encourage you to maintain a positive and supportive relationship. You should contact us (the Guidance Office) before making any counseling interventions. The school has a moral obligation to report any suicidal threats made by the student to his or her parents." Attached to the directive was an article from the New York Times (3/7/84) written by Jane E. Brody that stated the following facts:
Nationally, the month when suicides are at their peak in America is April. (A class student poll indicated they thought it would have been December.) It may be that when the environmental conditions are bleak, such as the winter months, there is not the contrast to one's inner dispair that April's spring song creates. In other words, when things spring into life in April, the contrast of this beauty to the way someone feels is so great suicide becomes a real possibility. Suicide is at a low point during cold and dismal winters.
National statistics show four times more men than women commit suicide. There are six times more attempts to commit suicide by women. Men mean it and women seem to be trying to use suicide as a form of communication. Caucasians tend to be more suicidal. Married people have a higher rate when compared to those that are not. Men most often use a gun and women use pills. The professions that have the highest suicide rates, according to the American Psychological Association, and ranked from highest to lowest are: Police, psychologists, nurses, traffic controllers, reporters, editors, musicians, pharmacists, dentists, painters, and security guards. By combining all the criteria, it seems if you are a white Protestant, a professional, male, over 50, with a good income or a lot of money, are widowed or divorced, with no children, live alone in a large city on the west coast you are at the highest risk for committing suicide.
When the police investigate a death they must determine if it is a suicide, murder, or accidental. Subtle clues are important. For example, if a person who wore glasses were to leap of a roof, they would take their glasses off prior to the leap for fear of getting glass in their eyes. Instead if they were pushed or accidentally fell, the glasses would remain on their face. Finding part of the eye glass embedded in the face is a definite indicator of a murder rather than a suicide. In a self-stabbing the knife is rarely plunged through the clothing the victim is wearing. Usually the person will remove the article of clothing prior to the act. In a stabbing, women usually use many thrusts to the abdomen and men usually plunge the knife into the heart with a single thrust.
The Death Scene of an Actual Suicide
(There are more photos of actual suicides. They are quite graphic and not pleasant to view. If you must, Click Here)
The act of suicide is not against the law in most States unless it interferes with the public welfare. If a person were to threaten to jump off the bridge into the Hudson River they could be arrested because it would cause a traffic jam. If they were to slash their wrists in the privacy of their bathroom, and the police arrived prior to death, a trip to the local psychiatric lockup, rather than the courts, would be the policy.
Society condemns suicide. The fear is the "copycat" syndrome. The fear in schools after a student takes their own life is that others will do the same. When Marilyn Monroe supposedly committed suicide there was a rash of others that did the same across the nation. Following the suicide of a famous person, or the suicide of a student in a school, the reaction of the survivors seems so appealing that others may try to do the same for the fame it brings. In our school there were several unwritten rules to follow if a student or teacher killed themselves. There were to be no dedications, eulogies, references, or changes in operation because of the occurrence. Everything was to be downplayed. There might have been a crisis team established to help other students cope with the loss, but there would be no change in the operation of the school or class schedules.
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