In episode 291, I received a question from a concerned parent asking for advice on how to talk to their son about tragedies that have happened within their school. In this post, I look more deeply into this delicate question and break down the multiple factors involved.
Hey Dr. Duff,
My son is in the 5th grade and attends a K-12 school. Recently, an 8th grade student committed suicide. I am sad to report this is the second in less than a year. Of course, my husband and I are discussing switching schools but there’s no running away from these things.
I talked with my son about reporting bullying and reaching out to talk to someone about his feelings. What advice do you have to talk to children about such a tragedy?
Hi – great question. There are multiple layers to consider here. I appreciate that you are thinking about this and being proactive about these difficult discussions. Also, that’s so tragic to hear about multiple students dying by suicide. I wish this was rarer, but unfortunately, suicide is a leading cause of death in school-aged people. I want to first ground you a little bit in how to think of the situation at your kid’s school then talk a bit about the approach for addressing it with him.
Suicide in School
According to the CDC, the national rate of suicide in the US for people aged 10-24 was 10.7 per 100,000 people in 2018. So, you can consider the size of your school or the size of the schools in your region and consider how this statistic applies. There is also the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic. This seems to have changed things and it will take some time for the statistics about 2021 to shake out. It’s a trip the way statistics work out. Like if you take something with a likelihood less than 1%, that may seem super rare. But then you apply that even to a stadium full of people for a concert or football game and you start going “whoa… this many people are likely to die from this, this many people are likely to get in a car accident, this many people are likely to get struck by lightning” etc. Now, statistics are also not always clean. This is a national average, but there are factors within a given school, a given region, or in a given point in time that could impact the likelihood of suicide.
Maybe you’ve heard the term suicide contagion. I kind of hate it as a buzzword, but there is some interesting research on it. The thing is the research is a bit hard to interpret, so I would definitely not take an article by NPR or Vogue at face value. Basically, suicide contagion is the term for the notion that people that are exposed to a suicide in their social sphere, or by media coverage, especially when graphic and specific, have a higher likelihood of attempting suicide themselves. The research generally indicates that there is some sort of impact. However, this isn’t necessarily causal. As I said, the research is a little hard to interpret – whether there are other reasons that both contributed to the suicide that occurred and also influence subsequent suicidal behaviors in others within the same area.
Now, one of the pieces of research that lends some credence to the idea that there is some sort of real suicide contagion is that people are impacted differently depending on their closeness to the person that died. This might seem a little obvious, but one meta-analysis that looked into this showed that people who were family members had the largest increase in suicidal thoughts or behaviors, followed by friends of the person. There was no statistically notable increase in likelihood among people that would be more considered distant peers of the person that died.
Changing schools brings its own risks
So, how does this apply to you? You said in your question, “Of course, my husband and I are discussing switching schools but there’s no running away from these things.” I think that there are a lot of things to consider about switching schools.
First off, is there an identifiable issue in the school or region that is likely contributing to these issues. For instance, having a lack of staff and no school counselor available, being highly competitive, etc. These are all issues that could contribute to a higher risk of mental health issues and suicide. Suicide also isn’t only influenced by thinks like depression and bullying. Impulsivity is also a big factor, especially for adolescents with squishy frontal lobes. If you know some things about the people that died, that helps to fill in the gaps, but it’s important not to make too many assumptions if you don’t. There are also risks to changing schools, right? One protective factor for suicide is having a social network that is caring. Stability also helps. Suddenly switching schools in response to something like this could potentially have its own risks. There’s just a lot to think about and it’s not just a one-size fits all approach that you can apply here.
Whenever possible, I think it’s helpful to involve your kiddo in the decision-making. You don’t need to give them the false impression that their opinion is the end all be all, because ultimately you will make the decision as parents. But talking with your kid about what they would like to do could potentially make that decision-making process a lot easier for you.
Encourage conversation with your kids
As I said at the beginning of this response, I’m glad that you are talking to your kid about this and being proactive. One thing that I often encourage for parents of children to do when it comes to big topics like this is to lead with curiosity. Ask them what they have heard about what happened. Ask them how they feel about it. Ask them if they have any questions, stressing that no question about this will get them in trouble. And ask them point-blank if this is something that they have every considered and why or why not? They are a kid, so you won’t get a full adult conversation out of all of these, but you might get some really helpful information and you are also showing them respect and openness through this act. It can also help guide you in terms of what else you might need to do to intervene or educate them.
Your kid might get annoyed at you asking multiple times, but you can continue to check in. Ask them to have regular conversations about how things are going at school, how they are feeling in their heart, and if there is anything they need. Ideally, you can build a relationship of trust, such that you can mostly take them at their word. If they say they aren’t being bullied and that they are generally happy (if the pieces add up), then you may not have to probe about those things so often anymore. If they can know that you or someone else is a trusted resource to come to in times of hardship, that can absolutely go a long way toward helping them feel not hopeless and not alone if something were to come up.
All or nothing?
I say this most often about conversations in romantic relationships, but it applies here too. Important conversations don’t have to be just one shot. You don’t have to be perfect or address this perfectly. You don’t have to figure out exactly the best way to say things and plan out the entire interaction beforehand. You just need to start. You broach the topic, you lead with your heart, and you come back to it again in the future. If something doesn’t land right or goes off the rails, that’s okay. You can continue clarifying. It’s just a starting point.
You don’t have to get more graphic than you need to, but I also wouldn’t shy away from the fact that someone took their life and they will not be coming back. That you are concerned because you love your kid and you just want to make sure that they understand there are many other options if they ever felt similarly. This is one of the reasons that I say leading with curiosity can be helpful. They may have much more awareness than you think because information is a lot more readily available now.
Overall, if you are concerned and talking with your kid in ways that demonstrate care, you are already doing a big part of what will help. Take your time with these decisions, revisit conversations, continue checking in and caring. You will be alright. Thank you for the question.
You can listen to this on Episode 291 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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