Time for Mental Detectors: 5 Ways To Stop Another Tragedy & My CNN Report

by | Apr 26, 2010 | Depression and Suicide

Chilling details continue to emerge three months after South Hadley High school freshman, Phoebe Prince, took her life. Descriptions of relentless vicious taunts, endless physical threats and horrifying bullying she endured at the hands of her peers leave us shaken. Now news sources have obtained two essays Phoebe Prince wrote for her high school English class.  This week CNN asked me to comment on those essays. “Should the teacher have turned Phoebe’s essay to a counselor?” they wanted to know. “Were her words a cry for help?” And the hard one: “Did educators miss this child’s suicidal warning signs?”

Let’s be clear: If we have a concern that a child might have suicidal or homicidal thoughts of course we have a moral obligation to share our suspects immediately to a mental health authority. But two lines in an English essay in which a student writes a general essay comment (which was true in this case) are usually not enough to trigger a teacher’s concern for a student’s emotional well being. A list of warning signs about depression and bullying are far better indicators. And those signs we better get to know. And here’s why.

The fact is that Phoebe Prince is not the only child who has taken her life because of severe emotional stress and depression caused by repeated peer harassment. And the sad truth is she will not be the last suicide if we don’t wise up. I’m only too aware of these tragedies.

This week I am flying to British Columbia to speak with parents and teachers. A young teen in the community of Nanimo took his life due to repeated bullying.

Last week I received a chilling email from a grandmother. “I thought I was a lone wolf until read your blog,” she wrote. “Yesterday I found a rope around my grandson’s neck. I got there just in time. After three hours of rocking him and calming him down I found out he was planning to hang himself because he was bullied.”

This summer Oprah’s producer called to ask me how to comment on two recent bullycides.

Last year I was contacted by Japanese educators who were concerned about a spike in adolescent suicides – each had been bullied.

Several years ago a man in an Ottawa audience handed me a photo at the end of my speeches on bullying. “It’s my son,” he said. “He hung himself because he was bullied.” He shook his head and said: “I think he’d be alive today if people had listened to your message. Please carry it to remind yourself to not stop spreading your message.” That photo is in my purse. I carry it with me everywhere I go and touch it right before I speak.

My hope is that people will hear the message: Not one more child folks. Not one more.

5 Ways to Prevent A Tragedy – Use Our Mental Detectors

The best metal detector to prevent tragedies is our own “mental” detector – that instinctive inner gauge — that alert us that something is different about that particular student: “She doesn’t seem herself lately.” “He’s been looking troubled and has been coming into class everyday stressed and tired.” “She isn’t focusing like she used to before.”

Students do not become suicidal or homicidal over night. If we tune in a bit closer we can spot those signs. Our mental detector should go off into full alert whenever there’s a pattern or a marked change in the child’s normal behavior that lasts everyday for at least two weeks. Get help ASAP.

Here are just five strategies to create safer learning environments for our youth and help us tune into their emotional health. We’ve also used these techniques reduce bullying, create safer school environments and lower the risk of suicide and school shootings. Your best approach is to implement all five strategies.

  • Designate specific staff. Students say they are more likely to report a threat or concern if they know which staff members to go to in case of a problem. At assembly the principal should introduce those staff members to all students.

  • Identify “at-risk” students. We don’t need to rely on risk assessments. We know which students are hurting. We know which of our students are facing changes or suddenly are “acting too different from their normal selves.” Why not just discuss those students at a faculty meeting? Just a five minute once a month chat: “Have you noticed a change in….?” Doing so could be enough to save a child.
  • Implement reporting strategies. We know that shyer and students who are bullied are more hesitant to share concerns with staff. Fear of retaliation is always on their minds. So create reporting options where they can safely report concerns. One technique is providing metal or wooden boxes (Report Boxes) built like mailboxes with a secure lock on top and placed in various locations around campus. Designated staff members review postings and follow up as needed. Some high schools set up phone hotlines or websites for students reporting.

  • Take any specific threat seriously. Read this fact carefully: Two-thirds of adolescents who commit homicide, suicide or a school shooting share their intentions. Listen! Tune in! Advance confessions by a student should be taken seriously for suicide as well as homicide: report those threats to a mental health professional immediately. Dan Cullen’s book, Columbine, is a must-read for administrators and mental health professionals. He states: “Most threats are idle, though; the key is specificity. Vague, implied and implausible threats are low-risk. The danger sky-rockets when threats are direct and specific, identity a motive, and indicate work performed to carry it out.”

  • Know teen suicide and depression warning signs. All staff members should be inserviced in the signs of adolescent depression and suicide (those signs can overlap) by a school psychologist or counselor and know who to report to in case they are concerned about a student. Many high schools are also teaching these warnings to students as well in their health classes and encouraging peers to watch out for each other. These warnings are from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:
    • Change in eating and sleeping habits
    • Withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities
    • Violent actions, rebellious behavior, or running away
    • Drug and alcohol use
    • Unusual neglect of personal appearance
    • Marked personality change
    • Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating
    • Decline in the quality of schoolwork
    • Frequent complaints about physical symptoms (stomachaches, headaches, fatigue)
    • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
    • Not tolerating praise or rewards

A teenager who is planning to commit suicide may also:

  • Complain of being a bad person or feeling rotten inside
  • Give verbal hints with statements such as: I won’t be a problem for you much longer, “Nothing matters, It’s no use, and I won’t see you again”
  • Put his or her affairs in order, for example, give away favorite possessions, clean his or her room, throw away important belongings, etc.
  • Become suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
  • Have signs of psychosis (hallucinations or bizarre thoughts)

If a child or adolescent says, I want to kill myself, or I’m going to commit suicide, always take the statement seriously and immediately seek assistance from a qualified mental health professional.

Not one more student!

We must start using our mental detectors.

What is your school or community doing to help the mental health of your youth?