Important Clues to Help Prevent Student Suicide
A father shares the lessons he learned about children's and teens' mental health, and how their use of cell phones, social media, and other outlets impacts their thinking, after the suicide of his 13-year-old son
(Part one of a two-part series)
After his 13-year-old son, Ryan, committed suicide, John Halligan became an advocate for suicide prevention in schools. And the first time he was asked to speak to students at a school near his home in Vermont, he agonized over what to say that would make a meaningful impact with the students.
He decided to show Ryan’s life through a slide show of photos, then speak about his hobbies, interests and personality, and then the effect of the bullies and bystanders who ultimately impacted Ryan’s decision to end his life. The presentation was so effective that Halligan still uses it today, 15 years later, in his visits to schools across the country.
What’s changed dramatically is the lecture he gives parents. In 2003, Ryan spent much of his time on the computer, and Halligan later learned through AOL instant messaging transcripts that he was being cyberbullied and manipulated by classmates he thought were friends. Today, children and teens have many more avenues for cyberbullying, smartphones and dangerous apps abound, and parents are busier than ever.
Halligan visits my middle school in Falls Church, Va., each year to give a talk, “If I Could Have a Do-Over: A Father’s Hard-Earned Lessons About Cyberbullying, Depression and Suicide.” This year I went with a group of elementary-school parents to try to grasp what we need to know about our children’s shifting social and emotional needs. While the messages were geared toward parents, the Learning First Alliance members have spent a great deal of time discussing the importance of social-emotional learning, one of the six elements in Elements of Success, as well as issues related to school climate and culture in response to Parkland and other school shootings. Halligan’s discussion and resources offered on his webpage, Ryansstory.org, are relevant for every educator and parent.
Unfortunately, data shows that suicides and attempted suicides dipped but began climbing upward again around 2009—around the time smartphones became mainstream. “The numbers are going in the wrong direction, really fast,” he said.
Anxiety and stress are also on the rise, with cell phones and “hyperconnectedness” deemed a root cause.
Since Ryan’s suicide in 2003, Halligan has advocated for bullying prevention and internet safety laws, met with parents and students from Ryan’s classes to try to answer the inevitable question “why?” and shared his sad lessons with as many parents and students as he can reach.
In short, here is what he advised:
- Never underestimate the impact of emotional bullying and cyberbullying: Once Ryan thought he had become friends with a classmate who had been his bully, he told the classmate a story that he thought was funny. Instead, the bully used the internet to spread a rumor that Ryan was gay.
- Parents must monitor children’s computer use and websites. Fortnight, a very popular video game, is becoming addictive and problematic for the violent actions it glorifies—Halligan compared it to military combat training, where soldiers learn to kill (Parents—please read this).
- Parents should always know children’s internet and phone passwords. And children must never give passwords to a friend—often, Halligan says, new romances are built on the “trust” of giving each other a password to a social media account. Then when the couple breaks up, one steals the others’ social media account.
- Every child needs a trusted “go to” adult besides parents, someone who they can talk to about issues at school or with friends that they might not want to discuss with their parents. Don’t believe your child will always come to you, Halligan stressed. Children are worried that they might disappoint or stress their parents, or that the parents don’t want to hear about a problem. One frequent issue cited by friends of suicidal children and adults is that they felt they were a burden on their families.
- Suicide threats and comments about negative self-worth (ie, “My life is worthless”) should be taken seriously and not given a pep talk. If a child expresses such a thought, a parent or friend should ask, “Are you suicidal?” and get professional help immediately. Do not tell a child to “tough up” or that it will be OK. Asking the question does not plant the idea, he added.
- Examine your child’s body regularly for signs of self harm. If a child is wearing wristbands, see if they are cutting their wrists. Cutting has been a strategy for children to try to transfer emotional pain to physical pain. Pediatricians also can play an important role in identifying physical and emotional signs of distress.
Read the second part of this blog here.
Joetta Sack-Min is the communications consultant for the Learning First Alliance and an elementary school parent.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.