I was 13 years old when “Dead Poets Society” came out; my friends and I spent copious amounts of time analyzing it. Yes, I adored Robert Sean Leonard, but it was his character’s suicide, because he felt misunderstood by his father and hemmed in by an already-scripted future, that remains most clearly emblazoned on my memory. The dramatic music builds to an emotional climax, and the snowy darkness mirrors the character’s suffering.
The scene made his death look glamorous. And that’s why I’m not planning to show the movie to my own near-13-year-old anytime soon.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, based on 2013 statistics, 17 percent of students in grades 9 to 12 had seriously considered suicide within the past year. We hear about it on the news, read about it in letters that come home from the PTA, see it on well-meaning videos that tell us how to recognize the signs. But we — adults and children alike — also read about it in popular literature and see it depicted in movies and television shows. When you throw in a celebrity suicide or unexpected death splashed all over the media, the question becomes: How do we talk to our kids about this?
My son had a lot of questions after learning that actor Heath Ledger had died, in 2008, of a drug overdose: How did it happen? Why would someone do that? It was easy for me to see how, given the right emotional circumstances, his puzzlement could have just as readily been interest. Celebrity deaths, both intentional and accidental, often lead to a wave of newspaper headlines and magazine covers, not to mention ceaseless coverage on television and online.
Jennifer Guttman, a clinical psychologist, says: “When a celebrity commits suicide, the amount of attention can seem glamorous — an opportunity to have a moment of fame or retribution. It is important to remind them that the celebrity is gone, because death is forever. The media will move on to other stories, but their families will remain grounded in suffering.”
Stephanie Hartselle, assistant professor of child psychiatry at Brown University, agrees. She stresses the importance of ensuring that suicides, particularly the hyper-exposed deaths of celebrities, are discussed “openly and at an age-appropriate level.”
Hartselle cites Robin Williams’s death as an example of potential glamorizing: She points to the tweets after his death that included language about his death “freeing” him, which could be harmful or confusing for teens.
“While the intended sentiment may have been to acknowledge his pain,” she says, “this kind of language can strongly affect children who think that if this successful actor couldn’t withstand his pain and took his own life, why wouldn’t I?”
The death of a noncelebrity, particularly the suicide of another child, can raise even more difficult questions. A boy in the class above mine killed himself when we were in high school. Drama surrounded the event: How had he been found? How had he done it? Our proximity to the sadness of his death made us feel more significant. Of course, that’s the opposite of the message we should be sending to kids about suicide. Lynn Zakeri, a school social worker in Northfield, Ill., for more than 10 years, says that it is important to emphasize the impact created by suicide — and to tell teens that the fallout is far from glamorous.
“Avoid approaching the topic by saying ‘We would miss you’ because that attention may be what is most desired,” Zakeri says. “Instead, focus on the finality of it by using statements like ‘The loneliness or pain you might feel is temporary, but there is no happy ending to a suicide. Suicide is forever.’”
Death, particularly suicide, is hard to talk about, but Hartselle emphasizes that parents must take any questions or comments about suicide seriously. You may need to initiate the conversation. Start with a forthright question: Have you ever had suicidal thoughts? Hartselle says that, contrary to what many of us fear, “Asking about suicide does not cause increased suicidal thinking.”
Guttman states that the timeliness of the discussion is also essential. “If these conversations do not occur quickly with adults,” she says, “young people risk learning inaccurate information from inexperienced peers.”
It’s hard to keep the dialogue open and responsive, but it’s up to us to make it happen. For younger children, Guttman suggests focusing on making sure the child doesn’t blame himself (“It had nothing to do with how he/she felt about you”) and the ways he can still feel connected to the deceased (“You can still talk to him/her in your heart because that’s where you carry him/her forever”). Conversations with adolescents and tweens should also emphasize the connection that remains: “Even though he/she was desperate enough to do this, his/her ties to you will always be there” but also address that “What you can learn from this is to always talk to people when you feel despairing.”
This is possibly the most important piece, the reminder that suicide occurs when there does not seem to be another option. Children should be told that, as Zakeri puts it, a person who commits suicide “did not find the help he needed, but I would always help you to find that help.”
I’d rather not think that this is a conversation I need to have with my son. But I would certainly prefer having the conversation to regretting that we did not have it.
Madeleine Deliee is a freelance writer and a teacher, mom and recovering actor who is currently performing “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ” nightly for her kids. She lives in Northern Virginia. Find her on Twitter @MMDeliee.
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