In the wake of the recent student suicide tragedy at Crescenta Valley High School, La Cañada Unified School District board member Ellen Multari contacted a local mental health professional for advice, information and strategies to help our district families understand and cope with the aftermath of the event.
The author of this article, Debra Kessler, is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in children with emotional and developmental challenges. She serves on the Community Prevention Council of La Cañada Flintridge, an organization that combines community leaders and resources — including representation from the La Cañada Unified School District — to combat the illegal use of drugs and alcohol, substance abuse and family problems in our community.
On behalf of the La Cañada Unified School District, I am grateful to Dr. Kessler for her efforts to help us better understand the varying levels of anxiety our youth are experiencing and how we as family, friends, teachers, administrators and a community can provide support and protection.
The district is committed to working in partnership with all of the adults who touch the lives of our students in efforts to provide our youth with the network of support they need to build the internal values, skills and beliefs needed to fully engage with and successfully navigate the world around them.
-- Wendy Sinnette, superintendent of La Cañada Unified School District
A young life ended. It was abrupt, dramatic and seemingly senseless. As a community of parents, teachers, students we were all shocked. What went wrong? Were there signs? What led him to this desperate act? It is moments like these where we are confronted with feelings of dismay, vulnerability and a sense of helplessness.
As heartbreaking as suicide is, it can teach us all something. Clearly this young man was struggling with something that was too much for him to handle alone. He was described as a sensitive young man who “always wanted to take care of the underdogs, the ones that were kind of left behind,” and “he was good at sensing when people were hurting and needing someone to talk to.” Yet, in response to his own despair he chose what is often referred to as the permanent solution to a temporary problem.
So, what can be learned so this tragic act of desperation doesn’t have to happen again? The teen years are tumultuous and full of angst. Most adults would not want to relive those challenging times. When is the turmoil of adolescents “typical” and when is it a sign of something more? Who is at risk?
Teens face many challenges. Developmentally, we now know that the area of the brain that manages impulsivity and cause and effect reasoning are undergoing massive reconstruction during the teen years. Conformity and individuality are two competing drives. Furthermore, with the demand to achieve in school to pave the way to college and with our rushed lifestyles, our children can easily get overwhelmed. At these times, the critical question is, to whom can they turn when things get tough? If a teen senses that his parents and friends will judge or criticize him, ignore him or ridicule him, desperation rises.
While it may seem simple, the single most powerful thing a parent, friend or teacher can do is to listen with an open heart. Listening is loving. When we are listened to, we feel valued, cared about and seen. Research indicates that family connectedness and school connectedness are significant protective factors (Kanimski,et al, J Youth Adol, 2010).
However, listening is hard. It takes time, patience and can leave us feeling helpless if we can’t “fix” the problem. In reality, listening can be the single most powerful “fix” we can offer. When someone is sharing their concern they are reaching out. As parents, peers, teachers and members of a community, verbal messages of despair, isolation, hopelessness and/or helplessness or acts of cutting, engaging in high-risk behaviors, drug and alcohol abuse or frequent injuries are signals that professional help is needed.
It is important to remember silence contributes to the darkness. Suicide is not typically a random act, but rather a symptom of long suffering. Suicidal individuals feel that that their pain has become so unbearable and inescapable that death is the only escape. It is estimated that 80% of teens have indicated that they have thought about suicide. Surprisingly, most teens tell someone, and often it is a friend, or sibling. These are secrets that cannot be kept. If you notice your friend, child, student, or acquaintance looking sad, down or acting withdrawn and is not talking about it, this should raise concern.
Additionally, avoiding talking about suicide contributes to the silence. This is why it is crucial that we ask directly if someone is having suicidal thoughts and feelings, and be open to hearing what they are thinking and feeling.
A popular myth is that talking directly about suicide will plant the seed, but research finds it is helpful in preventing suicides. This is an area where talking openly brings light and light brings hope and help. If you or anyone you know is feeling disconnected and despairing, talk to someone. If there isn’t anyone around you trust, call!
Resources: Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services (310) 895-2300. Provides bilingual Suicide Prevention Center hotline services for L.A. and Orange counties They provide support for suicide attempters as well as for loved ones after a suicide. They do outreach and training to a wide variety of community organizations.
Crisis Line: (877) 7-CRISIS or (877) 727-4747
If you are not in the Southland you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK. Call for yourself, or someone you care about. Your call is free and confidential.
There are warning signs. Below are some key warning signs outlined by the America Association of Suicidology: IS PATH WARM?
I = Ideation
A=Anxiety and Agitation
Additional signs to pay attention to:
Any prior suicide attempts dramatically increase risk
Indications that the individual feels like a burden to others
Changes in sleep and/or appetite: increases or decreases
Decrease in grades and other types of functioning
Giving away possessions
Sudden mood shift to calm, happy and relaxed: This may indicate a suicidal decision has been made that seems to “solve the problem” of ridding oneself of unbearable pain.
Los Angeles County Suicide Prevention for Schools, preventsuicide.lacoe.edu, provides helpful information on supporting kids regarding suicide.
-- Debra Kessler, licensed clinical psychologist