Sunday’s lead story in the Philadelphia Inquirer unfolds the tragic story of two high school girls who committed suicide by stepping in front of a speeding train last winter. The death of a child is always a tragedy. But death by suicide exponentially multiplies the pain. Could anyone see it coming? Could they have prevented it?
The story in the paper details the texts and social networking trail of tears leading up to their final actions. If this event happened when I was a child, the parents might have been left with a note or a journal to pour over looking for clues. But, in this case, there are texts and posts over a long span of time. Even worse, the girls made a number of final texts just before their deaths. It appears that loved ones searched frantically for them while “watching” cyberspace during their final act. I can only imagine that this “real time” aspect multiplies the trauma for the family.
Can we learn anything from this? Yes, I think so.
- Pay attention to your child’s (or friend’s) social networking and texts. Clues to their state of mind may well be evident.
- Act on concerns; take stock of their actions and attitudes. Per this case, it appears there were efforts to help them. Probably not enough. But let us not judge the family here. It is far too easy to become complacent. A child has strong feelings that they express over a period of time, thus making suicidal expressions normal. After the fact the signs seem so obvious. During the stress, it is hard to discern how bad it really is.
- Compounding suffering requires additional interventions, whether the child wants it or not. One girl’s father committed suicide, parents’ divorced requiring a move and change of school, a boyfriend was killed by a car. The more these kinds of experiences happen, the more attention the child needs by mentor or mental health workers.
- Even good schools won’t likely pick up on problems. Don’t assume school counselors have enough time to respond. It is not that they are incapable but the sheer number of students to follow makes their capacities limited.
Know that some people commit suicide and no one could have predicted it. Be wary of judging family members. They will live with enough guilt on their own. And yet, look for this recipe of pain and perceptions (summary of Jeff Black’s booklet):
- Strong powerful experiences of pain
- Perception that the they cannot tolerate the pain
- Hopelessness and inability to see alternatives other than relief via suicide
Other risk factors to consider: previous attempt? Suicidal ideation/plan? Hospitalization (even for non-psychiatric reasons)? Access to lethal means? Depressive anger coupled with impulsive history. These factors aren’t that helpful by themselves but looking over the total may provide *some* clues.