Students in Searsport District High School and many families in Searsport, Stockton Springs and Frankfort are reeling this week in the aftermath of the very public suicide of a 14-year-old boy. Suicide is one of the most tragic endings to a young life, because in theory it is preventable. A report released earlier this decade put Maine’s teen suicide rate at eighth highest in the nation. Nationally, suicide was the third leading cause of death among young adults and adolescents 15 to 24 years of age.
Maine policy makers are aware of the problem. In 1995, Gov. Angus King formed a task force to study teen suicide, and that group gave birth to the Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program in 1997. Much is being done, but even more can be done to prevent these needless deaths.
Families must broach the subject with their pre-teens, and the message must be that regardless of how hopeless a situation appears, there is always a way out. If a teen has made a wrong turn, there may be consequences, but they are always easier to bear than the pain a suicide inflicts on family. Suicide is, after all, a profoundly selfish act as parents, siblings and friends are left to carry on.
Schools can help. Most high schools have sophomore awareness programs, a sort of retreat for 10th graders at which difficult issues are explored with factual information provided to help guide students toward sound decisions. In recent years, public high schools have begun adopting a system that has each teacher serving as an informal advisor to a group of students. The system has been in place in private boarding schools for decades and yielded good results. The idea is that a troubled teen may stop at the advisor’s classroom after school and confess he is having conflict at home, or struggling with drugs, or is unable to rebound from the pain of a romantic break-up.
Another step schools might take is to separate boys and girls for frank discussions about the very different adolescent pain each endures. Particular attention should be shown in developing an agenda for the session with boys. Suicide is the 8th leading cause of death for males, compared to the 19th for females.
Boys are, generally speaking, more impulsive than girls, less mature at the same age and more inclined to violence.
A 25-year-old man, perhaps a graduate of the school, could be invited to speak to teen boys. It might be wise for the teachers and administrators to leave the room, so the young man can speak frankly about the sexual, romantic, physical and emotional challenges he survived as a teen. A good candidate to talk to the boys is not the former football star, but the once awkward and less-than-popular boy who found success and happiness as an adult.
With the Journal of the American Medical Association finding that teen suicide is on the rise over the last four years after a long, steady decline, much is at stake.