By Tressa McIff
As many people probably know, September is suicide awareness month with suicide prevention week being the 9-15. In the Olathe School District, this means a poster competition, some short announcements, and a couple poorly made videos. What it doesn’t include, however, is actual, productive conversation and change.
According to kansassuicideprevention.org, suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-24 as well as 25-44 in 2016. It is the third leading cause of death for children aged 5-14. These statistics have not decreased. In fact, they keep growing. Suicide rates increased by 45% in Kansas in the last 17 years, which is much more than the national average. Do schools really expect posters to put an end to this? I sure hope not.
I feel like I should clarify early on that I appreciate the district’s effort. This can be a very difficult topic to deal with and they’re doing the best they can. In this case, however, their best simply isn’t good enough. They are adults who haven’t really experienced the difficulties of high school for a couple decades. The district just has no idea what we actually need. That’s why we need to tell them. After that, it’s up to them if they choose listen or not.
With this in mind, I created a Google poll to see how students at ONW (and around the country) feel about suicide awareness and prevention. About 70% of the students who took the poll said that they have seriously considered suicide. Nearly 90% said that they knew someone who has attempted or committed suicide. 70% responded that they either suspect they have or they are diagnosed with some form of mental illness. When asked if they have ever reached out for help with mental health, almost everyone either said that they have not, or they did but it didn’t help. Only one person said that they believe suicide prevention week in the Olathe School District is advantageous.
Clearly, suicide is a huge problem around the country, but especially in our state and at our school. Now that that has been established, what can we actually do about it? Recognizing and wanting to fix the problem is great, but finding a viable solution is a whole different problem. Right now, suicide prevention week consists of a poster contest and watching two videos that aren’t even geared toward students. It seems like there’s a lot more we should be able to do. Even just being able to have productive, unfiltered dialogue would be a huge step forward. So why haven’t we done that?
It seems to me that everyone is just too scared. Suicide is a scary subject, especially when there have been so many students in our district that have taken their own lives. But that is precisely why we can’t be scared of it. This willingness to open a conversation has to come from both staff and students. Teachers shouldn’t be frustrated that suicide awareness is taking up their lesson time. They should be glad that they still have students to teach.
Students, on the other hand, need to take it seriously. In my poll, 76% of students said that they have joked about death or suicide before. Believe me, I understand the desire to make jokes and make light of this subject. I wholeheartedly believe that anything can be made into a joke, no matter how serious. In fact, I think that comedy can be a great tool for opening dialogue. However, there are times to make jokes and times to have serious conversations. Those can’t always overlap. When we do have conversations about suicide and mental health in school, students need to be willing to seriously participate and listen. If not, any attempts from the staff at open dialogue will be for nothing.
Along with having open conversations, the suicide prevention program should offer more resources to struggling students. Currently, the only help offered to students is the national suicide hotline. That does nothing. What about the school psychologist? I didn’t even know we had one until this year, and I bet there are a lot of other students that aren’t aware. Beyond that, schools could give students a list of supportive therapists. Searching for quality, affordable mental and emotional help can be a long and hard process. Providing these resources would be a quick and easy way for schools to make a big change.
Finally, we should be more educated about mental illness. Almost half of all suicides are connected to mental health issues. According to mentalhealthamerica.net, the most common mental illness that leads to suicide is depression, with 30% to 70% of suicide victims suffering from major depression or bipolar disorder. However, that’s only a small portion of what teenagers deal with. According to adaa.org, anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the United States. Almost 2.2 million teenagers will suffer from some sort of eating disorder, according to adolescentgrowth.com. In addition, teenagers are generally more stressed than adults, which affects all aspects of health. With all the AP classes, homework and extracurricular activities that students have to deal with, there is no time for us to take care of ourselves.
Despite all these staggering statistics, the only time these subjects are even touched on in school is for one quarter in health during freshman year. That is not nearly enough. With as much as these disorders affect students, neither teens or adults are very educated about them. Everyone should be aware that your brain can get sick, just like any other part of your body. And although the conversation about mental illness has become more open, there is still a major stigma around it. Creating a less taboo dialogue surrounding mental health would be another monumental step in the right direction.
These solutions are pretty simple and don’t require much work from the staff and students, yet they could make a substantial difference. So why haven’t they been implemented? Well actually, might be—next year.
Multiple districts in Johnson County are implementing a “Zero Reasons Why” campaign starting next year. This campaign is meant to “prevent teen suicide and drive productive conversations to affirm there are zero reasons why suicide is an option,” according to zeroreasonswhy.org. The program will theoretically bring together community leaders and various organizations to help implement action plans and outreach efforts.
This vague description still leaves me with a ton of questions. What will this actually entail? Why is it going to take a year to implement this campaign? My theory is that the district is waiting a year so that they don’t have to talk about suicide at all outside of the designated suicide prevention week. If that is the case, it raises a whole slew of other problems.
Suicide is not an issue that only affects people for one week out of the whole year. I can almost guarantee that every day multiple people at our school think about suicide. Some may just be having a fleeting thought, but others have been seriously planning for weeks or months. Bringing light to this issue for one week a year will not solve anything. Like everything else about suicide prevention week, it’s a good start, but more still needs to be done.
I’m not trying to say that we should be talking about suicide all day, every day, but it should be a more regular conversation. Maybe we have some dialogue every-so-often in seminar or advisory. We could have assemblies and invite people to speak about their experiences.
There is so much that needs to be done and so much that I didn’t mention, and probably haven’t even thought of. Overall, however, the easiest and biggest way that we can each make a change is being kinder and more open with each other. We need to de-stigmatize suicide and mental illness and be willing to face the hard stuff. That is the only way we will ever make a difference.
We have lost enough wonderful, promising lives due to suicide in our district and our ONW community. It has to end with us.
What more do you think/wish could be done to raise awareness about mental health and suicide?
“It feels like all the district does is brush over the subject instead of actually talking about it.”
“Have the teachers and administrators actually do something about bullying so it doesn’t drive people to suicide. Or do something about the high amount of pressure today’s students are constantly under, which makes them believe suicide is the only option. The administration says they’re “here to help” but that’s not true from personal experience. Nobody actually cares until the person is dead.”
“Bring more to home, especially at our school and district where have at least two suicides or so every single year instead of just being like here’s how you can help and the hotline number. Connecting it back to the community and school we live in and how it affects the people around us would make people take it seriously. I also wished that they gave us names of good therapists instead of just the hotline number so that way we can go talk to somebody before it gets to the point when you’re about to commit. Also letting guys know that it’s not weak to feel stressed or sad and that they can reach out.”
“Develop curriculum on social media and how what is posted affects people. How kids are judging their worth by “likes” and comparing their life to what is posted by others. How someone may appear to have their life in order based on what they put on social media, but truly be hurting.”
“Include it in education, say that mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain and that it’s hereditary. Teach us that’s a harder recovery than just “be happy!” Give us resources aimed towards students, not parents. Teach about other mental illnesses too, anxiety is highly common among teens, along with eating disorders. Teach that the brain can get diseases just like any other organ in a body. Teach that more boys commit suicide than girls. It’s more than just “work on being happy here’s a poster to help!” If someone reaches out for help, make sure it goes further than just one teacher. I reached out 6th,7th,8th,9th, and 10th grade and didn’t get professional help until my 11th year. It might take more time but if this is killing students wouldn’t you want to do more than take 15 minutes out of a week to show a buzzfeed video?”
“Administrators don’t know how teenagers think and how to make us feel better. Showing us videos about asking someone if they’re okay does nothing.”
“Don’t let them be alone.”
“Tell students about the resources the school provides like the social worker or psychologist here. Work on promoting that students take breaks for their mental health instead of telling them they have to be a part of every sport or club or take every AP class. Don’t tell students that if they don’t have a college or career picked out by sophomore year then they’re failures like some counselors have before. Stop teaching that failure is a bad thing and instead teach that it’s a part of learning. And acknowledge every student’s death. Not just the popular ones so kids don’t feel like if they die then no one would care because it doesn’t feel like you guys do sometimes.”
“I wish people actually cared”
“Do more to educate students about mental health and how to help their loved ones and friends who are struggling. Educate students on how to deal with panic attacks, maniac episodes, and how to coax loved ones when faced with unknown situations that people with mental health deal with on a day to day basis.”
“The kids at ONW that have committed suicide are NEVER mentioned or acknowledged. Our administration needs to do that. It feels like this week is a chore—we watch videos, our teachers give the mandatory “reach out if you need help” talk and then it’s over. We also need to be taught that people who struggle with that are less likely to reach out to you—you have to reach out to them. Tell kids that they need to check on their friends, and then be a support network to them so that they can be called upon to be a safety net.”
“I wish that people took it more seriously (myself). And I wish we had a class, like advisory, to talk about these things.”
“I wish people would stop being mean to others and telling them to consider killing themselves. I wish people would stand up and speak about how they feel. It’s better to talk about how the person feels and post posters around the school about the suicide hotline. I hope things get better for those who are suffering.”