I have self-debated for several days as to whether to weigh in on the suicide of CdM student Patrick Turner just over a week ago. It was the superintendent’s latest memo to the district staff that has caused me to offer a few thoughts.
Though I may appear to be taking yet another opportunity to find fault with the superintendent, that’s not where this is coming from. What he wrote and what he failed to write are not his challenges alone.
Administrators in education have a tendency to generalize situations, that is, to present issues or challenges in broad strokes. That’s not always bad thing – sometimes that is the best option. But this is not one of those times and the memo talks of Patrick at arms length: He is “the CdM student” and “this student.”
His name is Patrick Turner.
My other concern is over the national approach to the terrible problem of teenage depression as it relates to pressure in school. Patrick is just one of millions of American kids who are facing what they believe are challenges too great to overcome: According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 in 2015 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Further, anxiety and depression in high school kids has been on the rise since 2012.
The problem at the school level is that this tragic trend is too often measured in suicides when, in fact, there are millions of students who are anxious, depressed, and/or fearful who do not take their lives. They need help. Coming out with a statement only at a time when the problem hits home is indicative of a lack of understanding of the full scope of the problem. Again, this is a national problem, not just a problem in our district.
There are many readers reviewing this post who know a teen who is suffering. I know of one. This teen does not seem to me to be suicidal, but this teen needs counseling. The teen’s parents, however, are concerned about the stigma attached to seeking mental health support.
Which brings us to the next challenge, which is to determine how to de-stigmatize mental health counseling. Kids know that support is there, but many of them fail to take advantage of counseling opportunities because of the stigma attached. In its own way, the stigma of teen mental health counseling adds another layer of pressure, which is the pressure to keep it a secret.
A Rand Institute study revealed that “… the stigma that is often attached to depression and the potential for negative reactions from family members as primary reasons why [teens] have not sought treatment for their depression.”
If we are going to make any progress on this awful problem, we have to make it local, and we have to make it loud. We need to address kids who need help, of course, but we also have a duty to let the so-called “healthy” kids know that it is way wrong to stigmatize a fellow student who is receiving counseling.
We must also reinforce the belief that just as there are cures for physical ailments, there are cures for mental health issues, too.
We have a long way to go.