On a recent Wednesday evening, I wanted nothing more than to sit on my couch with a steaming mug of hot tea in one hand and a remote control in the other.
Instead, I sat in a half-full auditorium under bright lights at our local high school, W.T. Woodson, listening to two national experts speak about teen suicide.
I had been tempted to skip it. My three daughters are in middle school or younger, and our weekly routine is over-scheduled as it is. But W.T. Woodson has lost six students to suicide over the last three years, including two in a single week last spring. My daughters, all three of whom already show signs of stress and anxiety, will someday be W.T. Woodson students. My neighbors and babysitters already are. So I forced myself out into the wet night and attended the talk.
As much as I’d like to say that I went to the talk because the subject, suicide prevention, is an important one, I think I went more so to jolt myself back into worrying about it. I wanted that sense of urgency back in my blood. I wanted tangible facts and figures that would motivate me into making sweeping changes to my family’s life that could safeguard and protect my children.
I sat in the auditorium that night, rigid in a fixed-back theater seat, determined to take meticulous notes. But the presenters spoke in non sequitur bursts. Their narrative was full of entertaining jokes and hopeful anecdotes, and lacked a clear connection to the crisp bullet points projected onto the white screen behind them. I wrote down as much as I could, paying special attention to numbers and data, but worried that I missed as much as I caught. Here are a few statistics I managed to jot down:
• Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in youth aged 15 to 24 in the US
• One (1) in five (5) teenagers will suffer from depression at some point during adolescence
• Nearly 33 percent of Fairfax County high schoolers report feeling sad and as many has half of that number has seriously considered suicide
Incomplete notes not withstanding, I achieved my goal that night. I went home sufficiently re-awakened to the dangers of teenage depression and suicide.
By the next morning, however, the shock value of the statistics I wrote down the night before had once again worn off. The afterglow of initial comprehension gave way to complacent knowledge, and try as I might, I failed to provoke the same psychic reaction in myself that I’d had the night before.
So suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 15-24, I thought. How does that help me today? I spent the morning Googling for more facts and figures, feeling like a cutter, or a non-suicidal self-injurer as I learned it’s now called, looking for a fleeting rush to feel alive with fear. I craved a statistic, any statistic, that would put me back into a state of alert.
With the Internet as my willing aide, I found several, each scarier than the last. This number stuck out: 4,600 youth died by suicide in 2012.
On its own, this number doesn’t seem that earth-shattering. The 2012 population of the United States was 313 million, as in 313,000,000, as in five entire digits longer (read: BIGGER) than 4,600. But the number, 4,600, stuck out because, at the time I went to the presentation, it was pretty darn close to the number of people who had died in West Africa at that point from Ebola. Imagine what we could do if we treated mental health with the same vigilance, I thought.
I had another thought: What will I do when Ebola stops being the fear du jour? Will I need another statistic to keep teen suicide prevention/mental health at the top of my mind?
Probably. Because at the root of my misguided obsession with statistics is the belief that everything can be quantified. I want to believe that risk of suicide is something that can be modeled, a problem for which experts can devise a formula to tell me whether my children are at risk. But some things can’t and shouldn’t be quantified. Some things are qualitative and subjective, like how my daughters are feeling today and what I’m doing to keep them mentally strong.
When I went back to my notes from that evening’s talk and ignored the statistics, I saw instead encouragement to listen to my children, to spend time with them, to eat as a family. I found passages on not letting technology steal my children from me, a list protective factors for insulating them from risk, and pleas from the presenters to talk directly and openly with our children about mental health.
Because the truth is that there are no predictors for suicide. There is only today and tomorrow and that which can’t be quantified.
Chrissy Boylan is a writer and parent in the Washington D.C. area.
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