Important Clues to Help Prevent Student Suicide (Part 2)

By Joetta Sack-Min

The proliferation of cell phones, social media, and interactive video games has made efforts to curb cyberbullying much harder. The father of a 13-year-old who committed suicide gives tactics to manage these dangers.

This is the second part of a two-part blog series on suicide prevention and cyberbullying resources for parents and educators. Read the first part here.

John Halligan has spoken with many parents of children who committed suicide, and has found one common trait: Each child was described as “very sensitive.” And Halligan has concluded that there are some children who simply need extra supports to handle the stresses of adolescence and develop mental preparedness to be able to manage emotions throughout their lives.

While bullying was a factor, Halligan cautions not to immediately link bullying and suicide. He believes it was an underlying, undetected mental illness that ultimately drove Ryan to end his life. On his webpage, he writes: "I always make the point that I believe my son died of an illness called depression which tragically went undetected and untreated. ... We should address the bullying behavior, but we must also focus on building resiliency and coping skills especially in highly sensitive children and all children. ." 

But how can you identify bullying versus just mean words? Bullying is a deliberate, repeated, and emotional exploitation of power. One note for educators: If a child is being bullied, do not attempt a “conflict resolution” or try to get the children to talk to one another. What most often happens is that the bully will issue a “fake apology,” then amp up the bullying. (This exact scenario happened in my child’s class last year.)

Most bullying and cyberbullying incidents occur outside of school, which limits educators’ powers. But Halligan advises parents to document specific incidents—dates, times, place, the bully and witnesses—to take to administrators to help handle school-based incidents. Without documentation, it becomes a “he said, she said” situation.

As cell phones are now viewed as a necessity, and students are empowered to say things online that they would not say face-to-face, Halligan also offered resources and advice for parents on smartphones and other devices:

  • Websites such as Wait Until encourage parents not to give children smartphones until at least 8th grade, as most apps are not intended for children under age 13. 
  • Consider a child's maturity above age when determining usage of cell phones and devices.
  • Do not allow cell phones in children’s bedrooms where they can lose sleep texting and trying to keep up with friends on social media (the drama often takes place late at night).
  • Buy flip phones and Lightphone 2’s, which do not use data or apps, for younger children to carry for emergencies.
  • Use a contract to avoid any uncertainties: An example of an excellent cell phone contract for parents and children is on Halligan's website.
  • Parents must also, absolutely, get up to date on technology and must use monitoring and filtering software.

Ryan's suicide occurred in 2003, before the proliferation of cell phones and social media. Ryan had experienced developmental delays and learning difficulties, but Halligan credits his public schools’ special education team for helping Ryan achieve academic success. But the initial bullying began when he was having trouble keeping up with peers when he was mainstreamed in fifth grade. The bullying continued when Ryan, attempting to dispel rumors that he was gay, began chatting online with a female classmate who he thought was a girlfriend. The girl, consequently, was showing their chats to friends and making jokes about him. 

After Ryan’s suicide, Halligan used his password to access his AOL account and talk to his friends, to help piece together what had happened and why. Unfortunately, Halligan learned that there were many bystanders who could have stood up to his bullies—told them they weren’t funny, what they were doing wasn’t cool. Bullies need an audience, he added.

He also learned that there was a friend who had become especially concerned about Ryan in his last days and called Ryan every night to make sure he was OK. This friend, Halligan says, knew Ryan might be suicidal but had no idea what to do, he put the burden on himself to check on him. This shows the need for schools to have ways for students and staff to report incidents and get professional help for their peers.

“Every time a child commits suicide, there is someone who knew something was up with that student, but didn’t know what to do,” Halligan said.

Finally, Halligan learned that Ryan had confronted the girl who had led him to believe she was his girlfriend while making fun of him to friends, and told her it was girls like her who made him want to kill himself. After his suicide, that girl became a target at the school for her role. Halligan met with her, said she was extremely remorseful, and he forgave her. He also met with and forgave the boy who started the bullying in fifth grade.

Please check out Halligan’s website for a wealth of resources.

Joetta Sack-Min is the communications consultant for the Learning First Alliance and parent of children in elementary school in Falls Church, Va.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.







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