Teen suicide: Adults need to listen to kids, and it’s time to talk about the issue

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 14

Suicides, for the most part, remain in the shadows.

Unless the dead person was famous or the death occurred in a public place, the suicide is seldom noted.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Friends and relatives don’t necessarily want to talk about it, even though suicide is the third-leading cause of death among American teens.

Let a kid be killed for the shoes on his feet or die while texting and driving, and there are rallies and reports, soul-searching and studies.

But suicide? Shh.

In Fairfax County, where two of the Washington area’s top high schools have each had two boys kill themselves in a span of 48 hours this year, families, kids and schools are beginning to talk.

Schools are holding assemblies and seminars. Parents are urging mental health screenings. One school is even trying milk-and-cookie breaks to soothe frazzled teens.

“We absolutely have a responsibility to examine this as closely as possible to understand why this has continued to happen in one particular high school at this rate,” Fairfax County School Board member Megan McLaughlin — whose Braddock District includes W.T. Woodson High School and whose two sons attend the school — told The Washington Post’s Justin Jouvenal and T. Rees Shapiro. “It’s simply too high.”

Woodson has had six suicides — all boys — in the past three years.

At George Washington University, two male freshmen and a female senior killed themselves this year.

Langley High School had two suicides back to back in February, and they devastated students. Families held an impromptu gathering at McLean Bible Church the night after the second suicide, where kids, moms and dads hugged and cried.

“We have to pull ourselves out of this pit now,” said one of the students who went on the stage and took the microphone. He was among a group of boys who openly talked about pain, love, anger and fear in a huge auditorium of people.

They were showing other boys how to talk, to feel and to survive.

Most of the kids understood exactly how the boys who took their lives felt.

“Stress, there’s just so much stress,” one sophomore told me.

The suicide rate for Virginia is on the low side when you look at the rest of the country. That’s little comfort to the kids and families at these schools. There, the numbers are extremely high, and the students are devastated.

The county must also contend with the huge number of students who consider or attempt suicide.

In a 2011 Fairfax County youth survey, 19.6 percent of girls said they considered suicide, and 4.7 percent said they attempted it.

Nearly 12 percent of boys said they have considered suicide, and almost 3 percent said they tried unsuccessfully.

But in the past decade, boys have steadily been more successful than girls at killing themselves, at a 4 to 1 rate, nationally.

Boys don’t always talk about their feelings. No surprise there. None of the families or friends who talked to The Post about the high school suicides said they saw them coming.

The boys in those Northern Virginia high schools were, for the most part, pretty successful in sports, school and their social circles. It was heartbreaking to read some of the boys’ tweets and Facebook posts, in which they posed with cars and girls, smiling and laughing, giving no indication of the dark clouds gathering inside their heads.

It’s a complex problem, with mental health issues, hormones, and social and academic pressures that make survival of the teen years almost a miracle. I know very few folks who look back fondly on those years.

Teen suicide wasn’t as prevalent in the 1950s. Most suicides then were by adults.

But after the ’50s, the rates spiked and kept climbing, tripling by 1990. Meanwhile, adult suicide dropped, according to an analysis, Explaining the Rise in Youth Suicide, written in 2001 by David M. Cutler, Edward L. Glaeser and Karen E. Norberg.

What has changed in our society that leads so many teens to believe they can’t go on?

Maybe we have painted futures so bright they have blinded these maxed-out children.

Jack Chen, the Fairfax Station 15-year-old who stepped in front of a commuter train on Feb. 26 to end his life, said he wanted to be a professor and have four kids. But that brilliant future seemed exhausting to him in the note he left behind.

“There is too much stress in my life from school and the environment it creates, expectations for sports, expectations from my friends and expectations from my family,” Jack wrote.

The people in the Northern Virginia high schools talk about the crushing stress kids are under, loading up on advanced classes, winning at sports, piling on extracurricular activities.

Teens at the region’s best high schools said they get only four to five hours of sleep every night.

Meanwhile, Ivy League universities trumpet their rejection rates.

Stop and really listen to the teens in our gold-plated Zip codes. Some of them are miserable.

And why boys?

We don’t want our boys to talk about their feelings, to look weak. Maybe that’s why so few admit to thinking about suicide yet so many do it.

About 4,600 people between the ages of 10 and 24 kill themselves annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, 1,386 between the ages of 13 and 18 killed themselves.

It’s time to talk about that and time to let boys grab a microphone and tell everyone how they feel.

And most important, adults need to listen to them.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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