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Schools Grimly Face Teen Suicide

Youth: After couple killed themselves, principal grappled with dilemma of memorializing them without glamorizing deed.

July 30, 2000|DAVID CRARY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Like many high school principals, Mike Warbel had a plan ready when the bad news came. It proved useful but of scant consolation after two student sweethearts committed suicide in May.

Grief counselors were deployed at East Knox High School in Howard, Ohio; teachers read a message in their classrooms; students were encouraged to vent their emotions.

In the days after the suicides, Warbel faced some tough decisions. Should the prom be canceled? Should he speak at memorial services?

His choices--the prom was held, he did give a memorial speech--weren't based on any formal training. "You have a sense of how to react to your kids," Warbel said. "You can't be afraid of making a mistake."

A sadly high number of his peers confront similar dilemmas. About 2,000 American adolescents kill themselves each year.

After accidents and homicides, suicide is the third leading cause of death for teenagers. According to federal estimates, one of every five high school students has thought seriously about attempting suicide, and one in 14 has made an actual attempt.

Faced with this toll, school personnel are struggling to find effective ways to prevent suicide and cope with its aftermath.

Many schools lack full-time staff trained to detect mental illness, and experts offer conflicting advice about suicide prevention strategies. Post-suicide procedures also are a challenge; administrators try to accommodate grief without glamorizing death in a way that might encourage copycats.

"In our decision-making process, we were keeping two things in mind," Warbel said. "We wouldn't do anything to tarnish the images of these two kids or intensify the grief of their families."

East Knox High, like many schools, doesn't have a distinct suicide prevention course; it addresses suicide in the broader context of mental health. Many experts counsel against overly specific courses, saying they could backfire among students already harboring suicidal thoughts.

"When you're talking to a big class and saying a lot of things about suicide, different people listen to different words," said Dr. David Shaffer, a Columbia University psychiatrist who heads the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"In the disturbed kids, you probably reawaken bad thoughts and bad memories and set them off again," he said. "We recommend teaching teenagers about depression, how to recognize the symptoms, and give that lesson without mentioning suicide."

Other experts, while agreeing that caution is warranted, say teachers shouldn't shy from explicit mention of suicide.

"Adolescents are smarter than we give them credit for. If you're dancing around something, they know it," said Lindy Garnette, director of child and family services for the National Mental Health Assn.

"People don't commit suicide because somebody mentioned it. It can be a huge relief to hear the word and be able to talk about it."

Some critics say suicide should not be broached at all in school. The Eagle Forum, led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, complains that "death education" pervades U.S. high schools and urges parental skepticism of suicide awareness programs.

But prevention advocates say such objections often fade when suicide strikes close to home. Programs that increase awareness of depression are widely supported; so are initiatives encouraging young people to advise an adult if a friend reveals suicidal thoughts.

"It's too often the case that students feel they can deal with this stuff themselves," said Dr. Alan Berman, executive director of the American Assn. of Suicidology.

Screening for Mental Health, an organization in Wellesley, Mass., is recruiting 500 high schools nationwide for a program next fall aimed at identifying students prone to depression.

Barbara Kopans, the group's vice president, outlined how students will complete a questionnaire anonymously and score themselves. The goal: enabling students to recognize danger signs in themselves and their friends. "We want to empower young people to take action," Kopans said.

At East Knox High, a 560-student school in central Ohio, Warbel regretted that suicide victims Joseph Hall and Rachel Hanna didn't seek help.

"They had more lifelines than 95% of the kids in this country, and didn't use them," Warbel said. "The most important message to our kids is, don't be afraid to express yourself. If you think things are so dire that you might consider harming yourself, get up on my desk or your teacher's desk and stomp your feet until someone hears you."

If suicide prevention remains an uncertain science, so-called postvention--handling a suicide's aftermath--is even more improvisational.

After learning that Hall and Hanna killed themselves by setting their car ablaze, Warbel decided against holding a school-wide assembly. He asked teachers to break the news in their classrooms.

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