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Letter to the Editor: In Wake of Newtown We Need to Discuss Teen Suicide

Mental and emotional health needs to be taken seriously.

To the Editor,

In the wake of the recent tragedy in Connecticut I want to take this opportunity to talk about Teen Suicide. As a former high school health teacher I am keenly aware of the significance of this problem in our society. In the United States, Suicide is the No. 2 cause of death for youth between the ages of 15 and 24.

The Centers for Disease Control did a nationwide survey of high school students and found that 16 percent of the students had seriously considered suicide, 13 percent had reported creating a suicide plan, and 8 percent had reported attempting suicide in the 12 months preceding the survey.

Most (81 percent) of the youth who commit suicide are male and the most prevalent (45 percent) method of committing suicide is through the use of firearms. 

Prevention of tragedies such as what happened in Connecticut is more than just about gun control and school security. It’s also very much about tending to the emotional health of our teenagers. It’s about recognizing the risk factors of suicide. It’s about recognizing the signs and symptoms of suicide. It’s about removing the stigma of counseling. It’s about having access to health care that includes mental health care. It’s also about parents paying a lot of attention to their teenagers.

Some parents may believe that their teens no longer need as much attention as they did when they were in elementary or intermediate school because teens are more able to take care of themselves. But, in actuality, teens need attention and support more than ever. Teens deal with a lot of stresses – dating and sexuality, schooling, parental divorce, pressure about college, pressure from peers, drugs, pregnancy, problems at home, etc. Unlike adults, many teens have not yet developed all the coping mechanisms necessary to deal with life’s stressors.

As a teacher my experiences with teen suicide was close. I have known students who have committed suicide. Each year I had several students in my classes who had once attempted suicide. When the “Suicide Prevention” unit was moved from the 10th grade curriculum into the 9th grade curriculum, my 10th grade students asked me to continue teaching the lesson anyway. Each year I introduced the school psychologist and social worker to my classes. After that presentation the school psychologist would report to me that he had several of my students come knocking at his office door for help.

I already hear media pundits debating gun control. But until we take mental and emotional health seriously, tragedies such as the Virginia Tech, Columbine and Connecticut shootings are likely to continue repeating themselves.

Barbara Glakas
Herndon, VA 

[Email letters to the editor to leslie@patch.com.]

Tom Kellner December 15, 2012 at 04:47 PM
Barbara, One of the most gut-wrenching experiences I think a person can experience is that of violent death in general and the violent death of a young person in particular. As you are a veteran on the front-lines and have been exposed to this first-hand, you have my condolences. I cannot even imagine what it must be like for a parent to live with this type of tragedy. I had no idea that a suicide prevention course was taught in high school and I am amazed that you received so much response from what I discern to be a most basic course. As a total neophyte in child psychology, I would love to hear from the people on the front-lines, educators, as to what we can do to minimize the tragedy of broken children.
Mark Carolla December 15, 2012 at 06:25 PM
Barbara - Thank you. Very well written and needed...and relevant when we consider budget cuts nationally and locally related to education and mental health. Law Enforcement Officers on professional web sites around the nation are echoing your counsel. Gun control is not the only answer. Certainly, we Americans need to re-examine the interpretation of the Second Amendment and approach it with common sense so that hunters, those who need fire arms for protection because they live in isolated areas, etc. should have the right to own firearms but at the same time limit the ease at which they can fall into the hands of; be brandished and used by those with mental illness, undergoing psychological trauma, by criminals and by those untrained in their use. There should be means that can be legislated to inhibit and limit their presence and movement other than in legitimate hunting and private security. Apparently according to the media this case in CT is quite the norm of firearm tragedy - the murder weapons were registered legally and used against a family member. We need to consider that we may be contributing to the killing ourselves and our children with our interpretation of our Constitutional rights and need to have a non-polemic and nonpartisan approach to that question. However, the issues Barbara raises need no discussion or debate - we need to just do it.
Mark Carolla December 15, 2012 at 07:01 PM
Barbara's focus on mental health, prevention, education and treatment is so very relevent. Psychologic counseling is so often stigmatized and may not be readily available or covered by insurance. Additionally, we as families bear responsibilities to be sensitive to the mental health of ourselves and those around us. Guns certainly have no place readily available in a home where a family member is enduring mental illness or emotional stress. I was taught in the Boy Scouts (in rifle safety) as well as the Army that a firearm has one purpose, and that is to kill. We also need to consider that in the digital age there are all manner of games, movies, and amusements involving extreme, wanton and graphic violence that are hardly "healthy." We tolerate video games depicting killing cops but perish the thought of downloading pornography. Eighteen year olds and above are allowed to purchase and posess rifles and shotguns....but not beer... and although parents are forbidden to buy adults under 21 alcohol they legally can purchase them firearms and allow them to possess even a 9 mm automatic pistol or assault rifle at home. Education and counseling are the vital first steps and major bulwarks we need to go through while we discuss further reasonable limits on firearms.
Robert Gluck December 16, 2012 at 12:21 AM
Thank you for your letter, Barbara. As a parent of adult children with mental health issues incidents like this send chills up my spine. Once a person reaches adult status (i.e. 18), there is very little the family, social services, or the police can do to proactively intervene when that person begins to show signs of potentially violent behavior if that person is not willing to accept treatment. For all intensive purposes, the police can do nothing until the person has committed a crime. As we've seen in cases of mass shootings, the perpetrators often have no criminal record; their violent acts have no precedence. There needs to be a discussion about how to strike a balance between protecting the rights of adults with mental illness and protecting the general public. Until we do, incidents like this will happen again.
Don Joy December 16, 2012 at 09:19 AM
I noticed that you didn't include the actual main reason that the 2nd Amendment exists in the first place. That's fairly typical of most people's mis-education.
Barbara Glakas December 16, 2012 at 02:29 PM
Thanks, Tom. A Suicide Prevention lesson is taught in Fairfax County high schools, but I’m not sure what other school systems do. As far as your question about “what we can do to minimize the tragedy of broken children,” I’m not sure how to address that, other than those things I mention in my letter. As a health teacher I used to use the heck out of the school psychologist (SP) and social worker (SW), making referrals whenever I thought kids were under enormous stress, or dealing with home situations that they could not cope with, or who seemed to have anger-management problems. Unfortunately, these positions are not always fully funded. The County funds these positions, not the school system, so when budget cuts are made, the hours of the SP or SW get cut. There were some years that our SP and SW split their time between 2 or 3 different schools. There was also a recent push to centralize some of these positions into centralized locations, so the kids could go to them. That’s crazy. The kids, many of whom don’t even drive, aren’t going to go somewhere several miles a way to go get help... continued…
Barbara Glakas December 16, 2012 at 02:30 PM
…continued…… I heard one official suggest that the kids’ parents could drive them there. That’s a ridiculous idea too, as sometimes the parents ARE the problem. The SP and SW need to be IN the school building WITH the kids, so that they can go to a classroom door, pull a kid out of class and say, “Hey, let’s talk.” So I guess one recommendation I would have would be for there to be a full-time SP and SW in each school building (but I know that takes money). I also think screening for depression would be helpful. Heck, we screen the kids for everything else – physicals, shots, eyes, hearing, academics, etc. Why not screen them for depression too? It would only take teaching them to recognize signs and symptoms and then having them take a simple survey. They wouldn’t have to be forced to get help, but I bet most of teens would self-select to get help once they recognized the symptoms and knew where to go to for help. I find that most teens want help, because they are tired of dealing with all their “stuff.” I could go on about parents too. There are some who are great and have wonderful relationships with their kids. But then there are others who have no idea what’s going on in their kids’ lives.
Mark Carolla December 16, 2012 at 05:47 PM
Don Joy - My comments were to argue that we need a national discussion on the 2nd Amendment, not to pontificate as a historian on it's interpretation. Most people discussing this issue are not "mis-educated" but rather subscribe, as our courts are prone to, different interpretations of history and law. The text of the Bill of Rights Second Amendment reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" makes it clear to me, but not to a lot of other educated people and certainly not to a lot of learned judges,the reason for the Amendment was to allow a "well regulated" militia, not to allow everybody to have a rifle at home - although in 1789 rifles were quite common at home and taken for granted - and it is specific in that regard. Note that but one influence on the 2nd Amendment was 14 years prior to the Constitution the 1775 ride of Paul Revere and stand of the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord was to defend the armories - and arms - of the colonial militia from being seized by the Crown's regular troops. Note that the text links the militia to the "security of a free state" and of "the people" not the individual or "all persons." Of course, the judicial system has had a broad interpretation of this,and in precedence, custom and practice individuals have the right to hunting rifles and the like. We need to discuss the limits, such as assault weapons.
Barbara Glakas December 17, 2012 at 01:57 PM
Thomas Jefferson once said: "I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."
James December 17, 2012 at 03:50 PM
What does a militia have to do with the individual right to protect myself and my family?
Mark Carolla December 17, 2012 at 04:47 PM
James - The Second Amendment states "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." It reads "the People" not "persons." It says nothing about the right to bear automatic military weapons by individuals. This issue will be continually discussed in the courts and in Congress...and limits on assault weapons have already been approved but allowed to lapse. The operative concept is that there may be limits to the manner and type of arms an individual as opposed to the National Guard, Texas Rangers, etc.have the right to posess. Nobody is going to dispute your right to have a hunting rifle or revolver at home for sport or protection...but many will argue if you need a Bushmaster or AK-47, which as a Vietnam Era Army officer I was taught were solely designed for killing or maiming large numbers of enemy troops. But, as Barbara maintains there are a wide variety of needs in our society beyond the easy availability of assault weapons that need to be addressed and no single "gun control" law will suffice. This is not an easy task and we all have to bear responsibilities such as budgeting for mental health programs and treatments; our own parenting; and, yes, setting limits on the types of weapons we may purchase.
Marylou Bergeron December 17, 2012 at 05:27 PM
Thank you for a well written, thought provoking letter. America needs to do better addressing these types of tragedies. Mental health services are an often neglected part of the equation.
Ann H Csonka December 18, 2012 at 04:58 AM
Thank you for opening this critical topic, Barbara. I agree with Marylou. Also thanks to Mark and Robert for expanding the conversation substantively. Solutions to dilemmas of violence, excessive guns, drug use, suicides, mental illness, and countless attitudes and problems in our culture–particularly for teens and young adults—are unbelievably complex. We all need to become more aware of the people we interact with, notice possible problems and communicate more openly. In other words, CARE and not be comfortably isolated. WHAT TO DO? Be aware and do SOMEthing when there are opportunities. This might range from communicating more effectively with our own kids (if any are still at home) to talking with a kid in the neighborhood to volunteering in countless positive activities to being aware of issues and expressing opinions and ideas to legislators. GUNS. A current opportunity is forming and sharing opinions regarding availability of guns and gun violence at all levels of government. Unfortunately, there is too much polarization on “2nd Amendment” opinions. Hopefully, the shock of the Newtown CT incident will help open hearts and minds to some realities beyond entrenched dogmas. SCHOOL SYSTEM SPs and SWs. Right now, if funding for those critical positions is an issue, what do you suggest, Barb? People with kids in school can connect through their schools. Should others write to School Board rep(s) and to Supervisors “for the record as taxpayers”?

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