Sunday, April 2, 2017

Stories In The Dark: Teen Suicide

A few days before I was scheduled to do a show, I got a call from the principal of the elementary school.

Principal - "We're looking forward to your visit."

Me - "Great! I can't wait to be there!"

Principal  - "Oh, there is something you should know. On Monday, we had a tragedy."

Me - "I'm sorry to hear that."

Principal - "Yes, one of our sixth graders at the middle school committed suicide. I know you are seeing them the same day. I thought I would let you know. I don't know more than that, you will have to ask the other principal when you get here."

That stopped me in my tracks. I couldn't for the life of me imagine a sixth grader committing suicide. My brain began to try to find reasons a kid that young would do such a thing.

"Bullying" came to mind at once.

"Problems at home" was my next thought.

I was left sitting with thoughts about this situation.

I went to the school and told to the k - 2 and 3 - 5. We had a great time.

I went to lunch, returned, and met the principal of the middle school. I asked about this student who had taken their life. I did this because lots of my stories for sixth grade are gory, and they are about the challenges of dealing with peer pressure. There are also ghost stories.

I gave the principal a run down of the stories I was planning. I was told not to do the ghost stories, and we decided we'd go with the Greek set.

Then, I got some background on the child. Apparently, this person was well liked, was a fine student, and everyone got along with the child. I also found out that this person had attempted suicide fourth grade.

That also shocked me. What kind of kid tries to commit suicide in fourth grade? Clearly, this was an unusual situation.

Absolutely nobody knew the child was planning to do this. The person was chipper, spoke to everyone as if nothing was going on at all. The parent left the kid home and ran out to pick up pizza for dinner, only to return to find the body.

The parent is distraught, and the shock and grief are apparently being compounded because other parents are trying to figure out what this person "did" or "didn't" do that contributed to the death of their child.

When the sixth graders arrived, I asked what they wanted to hear. Well, they'd been online and they had been watching me tell for a couple of days. They wanted The Monkey's Heart. They also wanted Tongue Twisters. Then, they asked if I would do a scary story.

I looked over and the principal started laughing, "You called it! Go for it!"

So, I told the Boo Hag.

I finished up with Argos of the Thousand Eyes.

Telling during dark times is a thing that every teller has to face.

I was in schools after 9/11. I was in schools in Illinois after the arrest of Jeffery Dahmer. I was in schools after Katrina.

There are a number of things I've learned about going into schools when there is some tragedy or darkness going on internationally, nationally, or communally.

1 - I always speak to the administrators and find out what their comfort level is.

- The comfort level of the children and the grown-ups usually have nothing to do with each other. Still, the grown-ups are paying me so....

2 - I always offer the administrators an array of options for storytelling and bridging pieces so that the material can be used by the classroom teacher or counselors later if need be. I let the administration decide what they think their kids can handle. They know their kids better than I do.

3 - I make sure I'm talking to the kids informally and setting the mood before I get into the telling. I create the space we are going to tell in by the choices I make. That is my job, and I try to make the space where we can find each other and create some community.

I left the school after sharing tales, and everyone had a good time. The principal was pleased, the educators were pleased, and the kids told me, as they often do, that I was the best storyteller in the whole world. (I fully expect they tell every single storyteller they encounter this exact same thing.)

After this telling, I started doing research on teen suicide. I learned a great deal about this subject. I learned so many things that I realized I didn't know much of anything useful or true about this topic.

My assumptions were so erroneous as to be sad. I went to some of the websites that talked about adults and suicide and discovered that some of what they were saying didn't jibe with what I was reading about in children.

So, this is a short list of the reading and information I got in the last couple of weeks that made me rethink what I thought I knew about children and suicide.

Youth Suicide Stats

  • Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2015 CDC WISQARS)
  • Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2015 CDC WISQARS)
  • More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
  • Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.

Most teens who commit suicide begin thinking about it around the ages of eight or nine. Many have failed attempts before actually committing suicide.

So, my being really shocked at the young person attempting suicide in fourth grade stemmed from my immense ignorance, not because it was out of the ordinary.

Thoughts of Suicide Start Young

Here is the website for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline

Here is the number: 1-800-273-8255  It operates 24 hours a day 7 days a week

Here is the website for The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide

Here is a link to a national suicide prevention campaign called You Are Not Alone for teenagers.

There are articles about signs that your teenager might be contemplating suicide.  Here is one that offered seven ideas for parents facing a suicidal child.

And of course, I could not leave this subject without posting some warning signs.

Four out of five teens who attempt suicide give clear warning signs.
Warning Signs of suicidal ideation include, but are not limited, to the following:
  • Talking about suicide
  • Making statements about feeling hopeless, helpless, or worthless
  • A deepening depression
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Taking unnecessary risks or exhibiting self-destructive behavior
  • Out of character behavior
  • A loss of interest in the things one cares about
  • Visiting or calling people one cares about
  • Making arrangements; setting one’s affairs in order
  • Giving prized possessions away
Along with these warning signs, there are certain Risk Factors that can elevate the possibility of suicidal ideation.
  • Perfectionist personalities
  • Gay and Lesbian youth
  • Learning disabled youth
  • Loners
  • Youth with low self- esteem
  • Depressed youth
  • Students in serious trouble
  • Abused, Molested or Neglected Youth
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Parental history of violence, substance abuse, or divorce

You may be the first and last person to see these signs in a young person.

After reading that list, I was really depressed. Lots of teenagers fall into these categories. It does not mean they are all suicidal. I guess you just have to keep the lines of communication open as best you can and watch for variations in behavior...which, as far as I can tell is par for the course for teenagers.

I would like to reiterate that the child who took their life at the school I visited exhibited no signs at all that anybody noticed.

If you have lost a child, friend, or loved one to suicide, it does not mean that you are at fault or that you did anything to cause it. It does not mean that you could have stopped it if only....

I wasn't sure I was going to write about this at all, but after visiting this school and doing some intense reading I heard about another young person who took their life earlier this week in my community, and a friend of mine has a teenager who is struggling with this demon.

It is common. Far too common, and there is no reason NOT to write about it, share stories, and try to learn all we can.

Stories find you when you need them. I know that is a cheesy thing to say, but sometimes it is true. About a week before all of this broke loose, I got a facebook chat from an artist who I only know virtually. She sent me this link, and right in the middle of it was an inspirational story that had to do with suicide.

Over the last couple of weeks, this video keeps coming back to me. I keep thinking about how stories changed someone's life.

I think about the suicide hotline and what those people do twenty-four hours a day.

I think about all of the teen programs that focus on helping kids overcome suicidal ideation, and there is one thing they have in common...

Every single one of these organizations is working as hard as they can to change the story playing on a loop in the dark. They are trying to reframe the tale. They are trying to turn on the lights and reframe the person as the hero of their own story. The words that I am seeing that these organizations are trying to imbue in the stories of young people sing in my heart, and I wish I could make them part of everyone's story.

You Are Not Replaceable
You Are Loved
You Are Needed
You Are Wanted
You Are Worthwhile
You Are Strong
You Are Beautiful
You Are Amazing

We need your stories. We want to be part of the stories you will write in this world.

We need you to help us dream of the future. You are valuable.

You Are Not Alone

Yours In Story -


  1. Powerful, and sadly necessary.Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. I have been talking about these issues in the graduate classroom for years; many of my students are unaware of the statistics re: young suicides and are shocked to their cores. Adolescent suicide is an epidemic no one talks about- a true tragedy.

    1. I have to admit that I felt like I was crossing into forbidden territory writing about teen suicide. I was uncomfortable. Who am I to address this subject?

      I do understand that we need to talk about it. So many of us have so much to learn. In my reading I realized that even people who study this, help teens, and deal with this epidemic have things to learn.

      Everyone who goes through your YA class has a better handle on reality of life than most of the rest of us.

  3. very important work, thank you, Donna

  4. Thanks, Donna. This subject is very important to me. My storytelling career began immediately after the suicide of my (our) oldest son. That is the story most difficult for me to share, but I have done it for some organizations, and, over the years, with some friends and storytelling groups. The importance of being aware and nurturing joy, love, hope, coping abilities, and a willingness to see the options of other choices cannot be overstated. Truly, Donna, thanks for this message.

    1. Lyn, I am sorry to hear about your eldest. Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for sharing this story when you can.

  5. Thank you, Donna. Hard to think about because it is so painful and, as you point out, much more common than we think. Very good ideas on dealing with such a difficult subject. Yes, nurture love and hope and compassion and possibilities and let us remember to remind each other how important we are to one another. You are a blessing!

  6. Thank you, Donna. Hard to think about because it is so painful and, as you point out, much more common than we think. Very good ideas on dealing with such a difficult subject. Yes, nurture love and hope and compassion and possibilities and let us remember to remind each other how important we are to one another. You are a blessing!

  7. Have your read Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher? The book (fiction) came out a few years ago and it's been on my recommended reading list for bullying prevention/awareness since then. It's about a high school girl who commits suicide and leaves messages for the 13 people who contributed to her decision.
    It's a great look into the 'layer's of bullying - small acts of unkindness, group mindset, cool kids rule, intentional bullying, assault -- and the damage along the way when left unaddressed.
    Now it's a newly released Netflix series. Both are outstanding and you don't need to have read the book to understand the series.
    While there is no such thing as 'bully-cide' -- there is a connection between bullying and suicide. From the CDC:
    What We Know about Suicide
    • Suicide-related behaviors include the following:
    Suicide: Death caused by self-directed
    injurious behavior with any intent to die.
    Suicide attempt: A non-fatal self-directed
    potentially injurious behavior with any intent
    to die as a result of the behavior. A suicide
    attempt may or may not result in injury.
    Suicidal ideation: Thinking about,
    considering, or planning for suicide.
    • Suicide-related behavior is complicated and
    rarely the result of a single source of trauma or
    • People who engage in suicide-related behavior
    often experience overwhelming feelings of
    helplessness and hopelessness.
    • ANY involvement with bullying behavior is one
    stressor which may significantly contribute to
    feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that
    raise the risk of suicide.
    • Youth who are at increased risk for suiciderelated
    behavior are dealing with a complex
    interaction of multiple relationship (peer,
    family, or romantic), mental health, and school
    What We Know about Bullying and Suicide Together
    • We know that bullying behavior and suicide-related behavior are closely related. This means youth who
    report any involvement with bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related
    behavior than youth who do not report any involvement with bullying behavior.
    • We know enough about the relationship between bullying and suicide-related behavior to make
    evidence-based recommendations to improve prevention efforts.
    What We DON’T Know about Bullying and Suicide
    • We don’t know if bullying directly causes suicide-related behavior. We know that most youth who are
    involved in bullying do NOT engage in suicide-related behavior. It is correct to say that involvement in
    bullying, along with other risk factors, increases the chance that a young person will engage in suicide related

    Thanks for the post, Donna. It's such an important conversation to have with one another and with the kids we work with.