Five Teenagers in One Ontario Community Died by Suicide During Four Months in 2016--Parents, Friends and Mental Health Advocates Ask Why and Search for Preventative Measures
Sexting, an activity which can backfire and lead to suicide
Cell phones have given our children a new vehicle for communication, but these young people need to be taught the ramifications of sending personal information and pictures online where they cannot be recovered. Teachers are asked to discuss what material is too personal to text. One teacher, talking to her grade-school class, demonstrates by using a tube of toothpaste. When the paste is squeezed out, it can't be put back into the tube. In the same way pictures sent online can't be retrieved and may be pilfered or sent further afield than intended. Hope Witsell's suicide story describes a frequent occurrence. "The 13-year-old Florida girl sent a topless photo of herself to a boy in hope of gaining his attention. Instead, she got the attention of her school, as well as the high school nearby. The incessant bullying by classmates [calling her a whore and slut] that followed when the photo spread, put an emotional weight upon Hope that she ultimately could not bear. Hope Witsell hanged herself in her bedroom 11 weeks ago." "A [U.S.] poll recently showed some 20 percent of teens admitting they've sent nude pictures of themselves over cell phones." (9)
Warning signs of an impending crisis
Mandy's father said that he and his wife missed the warning signs indicating that Mandy was at a crisis point. A person's uncontrolled gestures may be more revealing than their conscious actions. There may be a sudden change in the person's behavior, such as loss of appetite and change in eating habits. They may seek to be alone or become careless and do dangerous things like self-mutilation. Has the youth turned to drugs or alcohol to lift their spirits? Is the person preoccupied with talk about death and dying? Do they exhibit signs of depression such as moodiness and helplessness, brooding, trouble concentrating? Youth with anxiety disorders, attention deficit disorders, schizophrenia, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and bipolar disorders are at risk. The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care advises: "...The cause is seldom limited to one factor. ...It may be a routine event or an overwhelming one that overloads a vulnerable youth's coping mechanisms.... Youth rarely make a direct plea for help." If the person has made previous attempts to take their own life, or if a family member has died by suicide, the vulnerable individual may use that person as a role model of how to cope with pain. There could be a genetic factor involved. (2) (7) (8)
Responses to indications of an impending crisis
Alex Bird's audio discussion with family members and professionals in the mental health field, The Canadian Mental Health Association and the Mental Health America publications list the following as major indicators that a crisis is impending and give suggestions: 1) In conversations the person often makes comments that their life has no meaning, etc. The advice given was to ask the person questions to draw them out. Like, "What do you mean? Some people who talk like that are thinking of suicide. Are you?" You must be specific and not hide under generalities. Listen and let them talk and figure out what can be done. Do not attempt to fix their problem by saying things like: "You should do.... and ..." Do not agree to keep silent. Report your fear to someone who can help. 2) You notice that the person is using alcohol or drugs in order to make them feel good or to escape facing pain or a dilemma. Talk until they realize that they must ask for professional help. Help them find resources. Role models in a group may show the understanding of their situation and be able to help. 3) Observe their body language; uncontrollable mannerisms such as inattentiveness, hands clutched or fidgeting, lip biting, expressions of anger and depression. Let the person know that even though you don't understand how they are feeling, you are there for them. You care. (6) (7) (8)
The responsibilities of schools, agencies and governments
California was the first U.S. state to mandate mental health classes in schools. Schools, community agencies and governments have a responsibility to provide: 1) information about suicide and contributing factors; 2) accesses where youth can speak to their peers and to adults about their feelings and frustrations freely; 3) mental health treatment for the most vulnerable; 4) instruction leading to good comping skills; 5) directions where youth can get help with their mental health issues. Schools should make children aware of the dangers of texting personal data and pictures. Prejudice and biases are learned and these attitudes are often passed on and may be expressed by bullying. Can the harmful prejudices be examined and their effects curtailed to inhibit the influence? Can the community offer better services, amenities and opportunities such as part time jobs, art, music, and drama programs, etc. that allow the youth to belong to a group working toward a worth-while goal? Teachers and leaders who guide young people can reach out to the child who is being signaled out as different, find an interest group where that child may find caring friends.
Youth who are sad, lonely and in pain for a number of reasons, may choose suicide as a means of ending the pain. Others try self-mutilation, use alcohol or drugs, overcome their loneliness by joining gangs. Mike McMahon says we must get to the causes of their sadness. Students point to bullying and the lack of community education about youth problems, and the lack of youth mental health services as a factor which allows a student to choose suicide. Talking to friends or to a counselor often enables the youth to have optimistic conversations with themselves that encourage them to prosper. We all need to feel that we belong. Communities need to recognize and address the prejudices and biases, which inhibit children who feel different from having the security of belonging. Amenities which our young people need to prosper must be provided. Woodstock is not alone with a problem of youth sadness leading to mental health illness. The Woodstock community is opening ways to help children feel less isolated, and believe that their lives have meaning. There is great hope.
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