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Hawaii leads the nation in the number of teens who have attempted suicide at least once in high school. According to data from the U.S. Office of Adolescent Health, one out of every 10 Hawaii teens has already tried to commit suicide.
As someone who has both seen and stopped several friends from committing suicide, I can say first hand that the key to saving our youth is to make suicide prevention everyone’s responsibility.
The Legislature has taken a very helpful step forward this session with the passage of House Bill 330 last week, a measure which appropriates $150,000 to support youth suicide early intervention, prevention and education initiatives. While this is a small amount invested toward a big problem, it is an immensely welcome help for a mental health crisis that is tearing our communities apart.
In my life, six of my friends have attempted suicide. But when I was in a Texas high school in the early 1990s, part of our freshman year core curriculum included a semester of “orientation,” which was really a mental health class in disguise that addressed pertinent topics like suicide, drug use, peer pressure, depression, bullying and so on.
At the time, teen suicide was given lip service and pejoratively characterized as a behavior that only losers engaged in.
We were told that suicide was often a cry for help used by people who were passive-aggressive, and that the best way to prevent suicide was to engage in positive thinking; preoccupy ourselves with athletic and scholarly activities; and aim for a “whole person concept.”
Worse yet, no effort to circulate help hotline phone numbers was made. We were simply told to talk to our counselor or a teacher.
The problem then, and now, is that we have a culture that hesitates to intervene on behalf of people.
Instead of helping my friends become “whole people,” messages like that only served to make teens who were struggling with life issues feel more incomplete. As most of my friends were the children of high-ranking military officers or affluent business owners in the community, they already were saturated at home by pressures to be leaders who were clean cut and successful in school.
Few, if any, actually went to our guidance counselor or teacher when they were so depressed as to experience suicidal ideation, because they feared getting judged by an authority figure. When I had a problem and thought to talk to my high school counselor, I was simply told to “suck it up” and given a liquid-crystal thermometer stress card to self-manage my tension.
My first encounter with teen suicide came in the form of a friend, who I will refer to here as J.F., whose biological father was a Marine that had served in Vietnam. J.F.’s father had always struggled with inner demons as a result of the war, feeling guilt over people he had killed and friends he had lost.
J.F.’s father had constantly talked about honor and impressed on his son how everything he did had to revolve around honor, or else he would be nothing. In effect, J.F.’s father was compensating for his experience in Vietnam by trying to deter his son from ever engaging in dishonorable actions.
At age 8, J.F. came home one day to find his father had committed suicide in the garage by shooting himself in the head. When J.F.’s mother remarried soon thereafter, he grew up intensely missing his father, feeling like a reject, and because he felt no one understood him, he ended up hanging around people who didn’t care about their direction in life.
At the time, these kinds of “moral injuries” were poorly understood by behavioral scientists, and by society in general, so people like J.F. suffered without limit within the prison walls of their heart.
At age 16, after a breakup with a girl he’d fallen in love with, J.F. himself attempted to commit suicide in the bathroom by slitting his wrists with a knife, but fortunately, I caught him before he was successful. He never attempted suicide again after that.
Another friend, C.P., was the only child of a Navy chief. As one of the few other Filipinos at our school, he was aggressively mocked by classmates for being awkward, who made fun of his hair, the way he talked, and other aspects of his unique Asian-Pacific Islander personhood.
C.P. later attempted suicide by taking an overdose of over-the-counter sleeping pills. While I was not present to stop him, he survived the incident, and he’s doing much better today.
I could go on and on, but in all of these incidents, nearly everyone who attempted suicide was doing the best they could in life, trying to take every day one step at a time. But pressures eventually crushed them to the point of having no hope at all.
Contrary to pop culture, none of my friends who attempted suicide ever composed a note, or openly warned others that they were going to kill themselves. In every case, they were going to die without anyone knowing, because they felt no one cared for them anyway.
The problem then, and now, is that we have a culture that hesitates to intervene on behalf of people. Many people feel awkward asking other people if they’re feeling okay, or if they need help, which perpetuates isolation and the perception that no one cares.
In a world where we wrestle over how much time is appropriate before we text or call someone back, or where randomly giving someone a hug, buying someone a get-well card, or just being compassionate is deemed “going too far,” respecting personal space is sometimes the fastest way to keep a suffering person marching toward annihilation.
As someone who has a degree in ministry as well as experience in counseling the depressed, I believe that all of us need to be proactive in saving lives. Teachers, counselors, and health professionals can be trained to deter teen suicide, but by the time they become aware of it, things may already be too late. They need our help, and here’s a few steps we can take:
—Teach children to exercise empathy and concern for others
Grade school is a very competitive environment, and teens are experiencing developmental changes in their bodies that adds additional stress to an already stressful environment. While it is good for parents to encourage kids to be competitive and tough, it is more important for them to be considerate, mindful of others and capable of exercising empathy.
These values not only reduce incidents of bullying and harassment, but they create an environment of understanding where the first line of defense against suicide becomes one’s peers.
—Dare to care
As mentioned earlier, sometimes minding your own business is the worst thing that anyone can do. It is sometimes necessary to overstep society’s self-imposed rules and to ask people if they need help, to offer assistance, and to just be a source of comfort or strength in someone’s time of need.
—Take mental health issues seriously as a matter of public safety
Professional intervention is sometimes necessary, and mental health is a vital matter of public safety that cannot be overlooked. Far too many people incorrectly assume that all or most cognitive problems can be solved by positive thinking or willpower changes to lifestyle.
—Make sure everyone knows how to get help
Last but not least, every teacher, every parent and every student in Hawaii needs to know about suicide prevention resources. On Oahu, the 24/7 Crisis Line of 832-3100, and on the Neighbor Islands, 1-800-753-6879, is a must for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis. And when in doubt, always call 911 if someone you know is thinking of committing suicide.
Hawaii, as the Aloha State, should be a place where suicides don’t have to happen. Aloha family values means everyone is family, and everyone has value. Let’s all do our part to save our teens and raise up a generation of stronger, more confident and healthy Hawaii residents.
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