We need to talk. About our children. About the issue of teen suicide. About the important role that schools and parents and peers must play in dealing with the issue.
While the subject remains difficult and uncomfortable, we need to talk. Because suicide — and mental health in general — must be pulled from the dark shadows of embarrassment and shame to which it often is shunted.
That was the overriding message of a couple stories that appeared recently in The Columbian:
• Reporter Marissa Harshman detailed efforts in Battle Ground to combat teen suicide. The article focused on photographer Korie Accetta, who has instigated a “You Matter” suicide-prevention program designed to reassure disenfranchised teens that their lives are important.
Combined with efforts from schools and police officers and city officials, Battle Ground is attempting to respond to a spate of youth suicides in recent months.
• Columnist Matt Calkins detailed, in the wake of the death of former NFL star Junior Seau, his own suicidal thoughts from years past. Calkins delivered a poignant reflection on the mindset and the sense of isolation that can lead to suicidal tendencies.
These are the types of conversations that can make a difference. These are the types of conversations that we, as a society, must be willing to have.
In a culture that reveres individual strength and personal initiative, mental illness, depression, and suicidal thoughts long have been considered taboo. It is Americans’ nature to expect others to “tough it out” or “suck it up” or “deal with it.” The ethos that leads us to expect athletes to just rub some dirt on a bruise informs our expectations for those who are suffering internally.
In this regard, we are failing those who might need help. In this regard, our lack of understanding of mental illness has been a shortcoming in our society.
Look at it this way: If somebody is suffering from diabetes, or heart disease, or multiple sclerosis, or any other physical ailment, we are loathe to expect them to “tough it out.” Instead, we provide support and medical services that can help them. Instead, we offer sympathy and empathy and understanding.
Mental illness and suicidal thoughts are worthy of the same compassion. They are illnesses that happen to be in the head rather than another part of the body. Our culture has made great strides in this understanding in recent decades, but we still have far to travel.
“We know that suicide is a really complex problem with complex solutions and complex causes,” Mary Jadwisiak, Youth Suicide Prevention Program coordinator for Clark and Cowlitz counties, was quoted as saying in Harshman’s article. “There’s no one solution just like there’s no one cause.”
That is crucial in dealing with and preventing suicide, particularly among teens.
Accetta, who developed the “You Matter” program, tells of her teenage years in which she was bullied, considered suicide, and wondered why she was forced to endure such torment.
Now 26, she says she passes this message along to teens: “You are loved. I was there, and I overcame it.”
These are the kinds of conversations that we must have as a society. It is crucial that we continue to work to remove the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness. Bringing those topics out of the shadows and into the light is the only long-term solution.
So, yes, we need to talk. More important, we need to listen.