When I wrote this piece a few months ago, I could not have imagined that the Covid-19 pandemic would close our schools. The last time I saw a student in my office or visited a school was March 13. While I find “screen time” draining in its own right, I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed or inspired by the adolescents with whom I am sharing this experience. Though the world has changed, our students have not. While grieving the loss of what they rightly expected, they continue to reflect, to question, to grow. They still rely on us — their teachers, advisors, counselors — to listen, to guide, to remain present. Connection matters, now more than ever.
A Surprise Call
Her mother calls at the last minute to tell me that Emily can’t make it to my office for our Thursday night session.
“She’s a mess; she can’t get off her bedroom floor. Can she call and talk to you over the phone?”
I press my Airpods slightly further into my ears.
Emily comes to the phone. She is quiet, but I can tell she is tearful. She has never experienced the death of a peer. She didn’t hear that it was by suicide until the day after she learned he was gone. He shot himself the day before Thanksgiving.
“His father kept a lot of guns in the house,” she tells me.
I’m not sure what to say to her. She hadn’t been friends with him, exactly; as far as I could tell, she hadn’t liked him that much.
I can’t say, “I know what you’re going through.” The fact is, I don’t — at least, not exactly. The truth is that in recent years, as a therapist working with adolescents, I have become much more knowledgeable about suicide than I could ever have imagined.
I gather myself, and say instead, “I’m so sorry.”
My professional composure evaporates.
Not another one.
Not someone Emily knows.
As we confront the unfathomable together, I feel closer to Emily. During our time together, her struggles and musings move me, her therapist, to reach deeper inside myself, recalling what it was like to feel as she, and many teenagers do: that things will never get better.
“He’ll never find out where he’s going to college.” She is silent for what feels like a long time but probably isn’t. “He’ll never go into his room again.”
“This is the worst thing,” I say.
So Many Stories
Sofia is a ninth-grader at a different school. Her best friend committed suicide last fall, and it was her teacher, not her mother, who let me know. Her friend was bullied by classmates at her urban high school. Kids made fun of the only clothing she could afford, of the fact that she sometimes forgot to style her hair. She texted Sofia the night before she died. Loaded down with homework, Sofia didn’t have time to respond, and she feels terrible about it all.
I explain why people commit suicide, and how depression consumes them, and they become convinced that even their parents, siblings, best friends would be better off without them. Now guilt, along with the gulf opened by her friend’s absence, steals her concentration and saps her boundless energy and enthusiasm.
Regrettably, Emily’s and Sofia’s stories are increasingly common. Adolescent suicide attempt rates are rising, and the effect ripples out. Poll a room of secondary school students as to who’s lost, or almost lost, a friend, family member, or peer to suicide — and you will see hands rise. Ask whether they, or a parent, struggle with drug or alcohol overuse, anxiety, depression, or PTSD — you’ll lose count.
When I posed similar questions to boarding school educators at a national conference last month, a school counselor inadvertently silenced the room by reflecting aloud — as if she were just realizing it — her school has five students enrolled precisely because their parents committed suicide.
“Is it a therapeutic school?” my co-presenter inquired.
“No, but . . .”
I emphasize the “but” when consulting with independent schools. It’s not that every adolescent is anxious or depressed, but roughly one-third of them will be at some point. Many students will never contemplate suicide, but suicidal thoughts and behavior are at an all-time high among thirteen- to nineteen-year-olds since the U.S. began tracking fifty years ago. And parents, faced with economic uncertainty, relational disappointments, or their own trauma histories, are not always doing much better. Our school communities have many healthy, well-adjusted — even happy — students, but they are affected by the psychological struggles of others in their classes, on their teams, in their families. This may be particularly true of the thoughtful, intuitive kids our schools seek and cultivate.
How Can Teachers Help?
The forward motion of adolescent development is the steadiest ally we have as educators. While facing obstacles, losses, and crises, the students I know persist in their growth: discovering literature, venturing into the city on their own, forming deeper relationships with peers. I never tire of consulting with independent schools because we have the resources, human capital, and creativity to morph into what students and families need us to be. In Boston and elsewhere, independent schools have established — or are developing — effective health, mindfulness, and social-emotional support programs, alongside increasingly sophisticated, inclusive counseling services. With well-informed adults on the ground ready to respond, our schools can keep students safe, cared for; thus able to learn and grow. Given what today’s students and families are facing, we’d better keep at it.
Adolescent suicide is preventable. Most students who attempt suicide provide direct and/or indirect signals to friends, classmates, school personnel, and family members that they are considering death by suicide. Among those who attempt suicide, ambivalence about dying is the norm, not the exception. Teenagers in this predicament can’t see a solution or a positive outcome in the moment, but some part of them wants to be stopped. While it’s developmentally normative for adolescents to ponder the meaning of life, to question their sense of purpose, to wonder what happens after we die, it is not safe or acceptable for a teenager to be — or feel — alone with depression, hopelessness, or suicidal intent. Know that asking a child whether they feel suicidal will not put the idea into their head. If the answer is already yes, it’ll be a lucky thing you asked. If the answer is no, your query won’t change it.
If one of your students expresses suicidal intent, know your school’s policies and procedures. Is there a crisis team? If so, how do you set it into motion? If not, how can you get immediate access to a school counselor, dean or other administrator? Don’t keep secrets or make promises. Take all risk seriously, even if a student dials back their distress once you, colleagues, or parents respond.
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) provides evidence-based resources as well as direct consultation to schools regarding crisis response and prevention. Their thoughtful, comprehensive suicide prevention guidelines for school administrators are available on their website.
Ask a Simple Question: Are You Okay?
Emily wrote a speech for English class shortly after our phone session. The prompt was general and open-ended, so she used the assignment to alert her classmates to the realities of adolescent depression, to convey that suicide can be an imminent risk. She closed her speech by imploring fellow students to use what she referred to as “three simple words” if they notice a peer who seems sad, irritable, quiet, or withdrawn.
“Are you okay?”
If you notice one of your students seems unhappy or more removed, if something doesn’t seem quite right in class, at practice, or in the dorm, I hope you feel able to follow Emily’s advice. If you’re interested in my reflections on monitoring student health and well-being during remote learning, please see my May 2020 post on the NAIS blog, “Independent Ideas.”