Teenage Suicide: An Open Letter to My Son

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Dear Zachary,

I am so sorry for you and many others who knew the recent graduate of your school who committed suicide. My deepest sympathies to all of you.

Since I have been working with Christian Pk – 12 schools since 2006, I would like to give you my take on four practical things I would do to try to deal with this problem, if I was in leadership at your school.

Big Idea #1: How Public Should We Be About Suicides?


First, I think I agree you that the grown-ups in charge do need to deal with it, but I’m not 100% sure about that. I am grateful for the 2-3 teachers of yours who brought it up. It is a very difficult call for a Principal or Superintendent to announce something like this publicly, or do a moment of silence for someone who committed suicide. I am not sure what my school clients would have done for a recent graduate like this.

In this case, it might have been better to bring it up publicly because so many people seemed to know this person. If that wasn’t obvious at first, re-evaluating later in the day (as clearly emotions were getting far worse.) Be aware however, that there is also research out there that making suicides too public can result in “copy cats,” so I do not think this issue is cut and dried. And that’s the hard call for your leaders at school.

As we talked about at Freddy’s, we do students no favors when we try to protect them from all of the challenges of life. In fact, we clearly weaken them by over protecting them. Troubles and challenges will come to us all sooner or later. For example, people we know will die in unfortunate ways and unexpected times. It is imperative on the adults to use every occasion to coach young adults like you through those times, so that you are stronger for next time. (Or as I so often hear, we have to prepare you for road, rather than prepare the road for you.)

That the adults use teaching moments like this is particularly important for your generation. What you may not realize is that your generation looks for answers from their own peers much more than my generation ever did. As a teenager, I hung out with my parents, and grandparents, uncles, and adults of all kinds. I learned a lot, and that wisdom has become a key part of who I am. And I did talk about the hard things with them. My father and I had many deep conversations. But often that was because I initiated it.

Big Idea #2: Setting Expectations about How Life Really Is


I am very grateful for our Pastor stating the hard reality – repeatedly – that no one owes us anything. I am not owed a wife, a job, a house, income, or happiness from anyone, and neither are you. No one owes you friends, or a wife, or college, or a great job out of college, or the esteem and respect of anyone. The world doesn’t owe you or me any of these things.

What that means to all of us is that if I don’t have friends, I need to be a friend. If I don’t have a spouse, I need to find one. If I don’t have a job, I need to find one. If I can’t find a job, I need to create one. If I can’t get into a good college, I have to work harder at preparing myself to be admitted to one.  If I don’t have purpose, I need to explore enough things to find one.

If I am not thought well of, I need to work hard to learn a skill and get good at doing something. The world owes me exactly nothing – it’s up to me, with God’s help.

How this relates to suicide is that if things are not working out well, we should not be surprised. At all. Jesus said in this life we will have many troubles. If it were me, a realistic way to impart this idea to your peers in high school is to bring adult overcomers into the classroom, at least 2-3 times a month.

By an overcomer, I mean someone who found a way to make life work after tragedy. A public example of that is Joe Biden, who is considering a run for President. As I mentioned, I appreciate his humility, even though I do not agree with all his opinions. He lost his first wife and daughter in a tragic car accident, and one of his sons just a few years ago. The last I read he is the most popular Democrat for the 2020 election, although he hasn’t announced he is even running.

While your school or any school would never have Joe Biden stop by, there are many overcomers like him in our midst. I have met so many in my travels. I think the administration of any school would be so wise to bring them into the classrooms regularly. They can be inspiring examples of “just staying alive” (as Pastor says) in the midst of real and sometimes unthinkable tragedy.

I think in a school setting students need to have the expectation that not every teacher is going to be their friend. And frankly, if they want the teacher to be their friend, they need to be friendly towards the teacher. I cannot imagine the difficulty of getting to know 100-120 names every year, and sometimes each semester. And that is the very first step to any friendship – I struggle with 20 at the average Christian school seminar I do, and I’m an extrovert.  

And then there is the introverts, easily 1/3 of the population, who find forming new friendships energy draining. If you want to be friendly with that teacher, ask yourself what you could do to help them conserve their energy. Maybe little things, before or after class. 

To be fair, your school does not owe you the friendship of the teacher. If you want that, you need to be vulnerable and go for it. And you need to recognize that even if you go for it, certain teachers may never be that great of a friend to you. But many will. And that is just how life works. Vulnerability means – I am going to try, but it may not work out. The only certainty is that it won’t work out if I do not try at all.

A book that changed my life inexorably for the better was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I wish every one of your classmates – and you – would read it.

As far as you or you classmates go, it does not matter how rich or poor, stable or unstable, easy or hard your family situation. Here’s reality: The world doesn’t owe you anything.More reality: We serve a big God who is FOR YOU, but even in serving him fully, there will still be problems, trouble, and heartache.  That’s part of the earth being cursed to futility. 

Knowing – really knowing – these facts makes it easier to deal with when the troubles come. And they will come.

A final thing I will mention. Do you know that in the last two decades the total number of students killed by a school shooting is about 150? That’s all. I think things like lock-downs drills, which significantly increase student anxiety, are more about what adults want then what students really need. There will be other issues like that as well, but the hard part for you is separating out which is which.  So you honor authority in all circumstances.

That 150 compares to 9,000 teenagers who died of drug overdoses in the last two decades, 4,300 deaths per year due to under age alcohol use, and yes, a huge increase in teen suicide.  We need to put far more energy into preventing tragedy in more likely ways like these, rather than practicing for active shooter situations which are unlikely to happen at your school. I wish schools were more helpful in explaining to students what the real problems are, and dealing with these.

Be aware that the adults in your life will – with the best of intents – add anxiety and stress to your life in ways that in hindsight aren’t necessary.  High stakes testing is one of those areas.  Be aware that more and more colleges are NOT requiring the SAT or ACT in their admission process, for example. You shouldn’t feel stressed out about all that. 

Instead, you should work very hard to have good skills, in writing, and speaking, and collaborating, leading. You need to know how to solve problems, and equally important, what the problem really is.  How to stay peaceful and creative in the midst of the storm. Most of all you should develop a passion and zest for life, and a willingness to try to new things. 

You would hope that the adults in your life would help you be more realistic about the real problems you are likely to face, and what you need to do about it.  But that is not always the case.  All of us to varying degrees have to find a way to determine what really matters for our lives.  Just like you, your teachers and their leaders have both good ideas and bad ideas, and good days and bad days.  So we help each other, and we help ourselves
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Big Idea #3: We Need to Help Students Think Better

One of the great breakthroughs in treating depression is understanding how people’s thought processes either worsen or improve depression. A type of counseling called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), arguably the most researched counseling methodology ever, has been proven quite effective in helping people with depression and anxiety. In fact, it’s as good as Prozac and other SSRI’s in helping people become less depressed.

The idea of CBT is to correct inaccurate thought processes – ways of thinking that anxious and depressed people use more often – which causes them to be even more depressed and anxious –using even more of these “cognitive distortions.” This is a vicious downward spiral that can end up in suicide.

Before I talk the thinking patterns themselves, I would like to point out that this topic is not psychobabble mumbo jumbo, but rather is healthy ways of thinking. You are in school, which is all about learning how to think. These patterns can be worked into all sorts of curriculum and lessons. And they should be – for your good, and the good of your classmates.

Teachers can gently correct instances of these as they happen everyday in classrooms at your school. They just have to be able to recognize the negative and positive versions.

By coaching students to think in the positive direction on each of these, a mountain of research clearly says they will be more optimistic, less depressed, and much less likely to be suicidal.

So what are these patterns?

The biggest one you see routinely is emotional reasoning: Letting your feelings guide your interpretation of reality.  Such as: “I feel sad, therefore I must be depressed.” Or “I feel anxious, therefore I must be in danger.” Or “I feel abused by what you said, therefore you abused me.”

I’m quoting directly from the Coddling of the American Mind by Lukianhoff and Haidt, p. 38. Here are the other most common cognitive distortions.

Catastrophizing: Focusing on the worst possible outcome and seeing it as likely.

Overgeneralizing: Perceiving a global pattern of negatives as the basis of a single incident.

Dichotomous Thinking (also know variously as “black and white thinking,” or “All or nothing thinking” and “binary thinking”) is viewing events or people in all or nothing terms: “I get rejected by everyone.” “It was a complete waste of time.”

Mind reading: Assuming that you know what people think without having sufficient evident of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”

Labeling: Assigning global negative traits to yourself or others (often in the service of dichotomous thinking). “I’m undesirable.” Or “He’s a rotten person.”

Negative filtering: You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all the people who don’t like me.”

Discounting Positives: Claiming that the positive things you or others do are trivial, so that you can maintain a negative judgement.

Blaming: Focusing on the other person as the source of your negative feelings; you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself.

There’s three really important ideas about cognitive distortions: (1) They are cognitive, which means that they are learned and unlearned. (2) They create downward spirals, resulting in more depression and/or anxiety, and therefore more cognitive distortions, and (3) You can easily find the very same behavior practiced by the adults in your life.

In fact, on (3) I have been on the receiving end of over half of these distortions in the last month alone, in situations where relationships were strained or ruined as a consequence. And that’s face to face. Add social media to the mix, and now it is quite easy to jump to the wrong conclusion, and these kinds of distortions are rampant. I believe this problem is the main reason why people who use social media a lot are both less happy and more depressed. It’s also why you should never work out problems by email or social media, at least if you care about the relationship. Texting is the worse.

Because these are cognitive skills, there is no reason they cannot be taught with the curriculum at hand. You mentioned that in your history class, Christopher Columbus was largely viewed as a bad actor, because of the ways he and his shipmates abused America natives. At the same time, he was a devout Catholic who ended each day on the boat with Vespers. Certainly the Spaniards abused Indians and pillaged South America, at the same time others from Spain sent over 15,000 missionaries to the America’s up to 1820.

With a small number of exceptions (e.g. Hitler), individual people, people groups (e.g. the Jews, minority groups), states, or countries are neither completely evil or completely good.  We are wise to give people the benefit of the doubt, and look for the good in everything. 

This is especially important for ourselves and the ones we love. You and I fit the vast majority of people who are neither completely good or evil.  Consider how even St. Paul writes of himself – calling himself Chief of the Apostles, and Chief of Sinners. (See Romans 7:23,24). Therefore we need to forgive the ones we love and, very importantly from a suicide perspective, we need to forgive ourselves. 

As I write this, you are working on an author critique of Earnest Hemingway. If I was the teacher assigning and critiquing your work, I would emphasize the need for careful research, avoiding preconceived notions (also known as confirmation basis) and an even-handed treatment of the author. This would NOT be a creative writing assignment encouraging the cognitive distortion of mind-reading. I would mark down heavily on that. Conjecture and conclusions would have to be based on solid evidence.

We need to take a lesson from our Biblical heroes. They were far from perfect. Yet that does not negate the good they did, or how God used them. We lose a great deal of the richness and possibilities of life with all or nothing thinking, dichotomous thinking – categorizing people we like as “all good” and people we don’t like as “all evil.”  And we hurt people and relationships deeply by this kind of thinking. 

On any sort of essay or test, I would be clear up front that this is the list of cognitive distortions I would be marking down on – on every test and every assignment. Employers need employees who have these same soft skills, employees who know how to think realistically. What we are talking about here is clear thinking, with many implications on getting along with people.

These are critical soft skills that will make all the difference in who does and does not get hired after college. (40%+ of recent college grads are unemployed, under-employed, or working in jobs that do not require a college degree.) It’s not lack of technology skills or academics that are the problem, it’s soft skills like this. 

So besides saving lives, teaching and rewarding students to NOT use cognitive distortions will help them to be meaningfully employed when robots and artificial intelligence and overseas competition make good jobs much harder to find.

One more important word about downward spirals that end up in unnecessary and tragic suicides: Loneliness.

Did you know that lonely people are less trusting and more suspicious? As a consequence, they interpret many conversations or looks or actions in a way that makes it harder to form friendships. The few friends they have leave or die, with no new friends taking their place. Thus, the lonelier they become, the harder it is for others to befriend them.  Another downhill spiral that can end up in suicide.

It’s very important that you know that the research clearly shows that communication on social media does NOT solve the loneliness problem. In fact, many experts think it makes it worse. So we have to get off social media and talk to each other face to face.

I was so impressed by one of the schools I worked with, who had their 6th grade girls get the “Squirrelly Girls” talk by a motherly female coach. Essentially: “Over the next few years, young women you think are your friends will go temporarily insane from time to time. They will do things that will be very hurtful to you. Here’s how you handle it ….”

Big Idea #4: Caring, Warmth, Empathy, Friendliness: A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats


I was fortunate to attend a college in Seward, Nebraska, where the education professors did a great deal of work on the question of how to help students become more warm, caring, friendly and empathetic. As we talked about, just having people in your classmates’ life who are warm, caring and empathetic would prevent many suicides. That’s obvious.

What’s not so obvious is there is actually much that the leadership in a school can do to increase the level of warmth, caring, friendliness and empathy. It’s called various things, but I will call it facilitator’s training.

So imagine in home room that your teacher gave you a 10 minute task: Write down the top three names of people who are (1) Most caring, (2) Most Empathetic, (3) Most Friendly, and (4) Warmest people you PERSONALLY know. (The ones you would actually go to if you had a problem.) 

If you wanted to be scientific about it, you could ask four more questions, which is: How warm, caring, empathetic and friendly are students at my school, respectively, on a 0 to 10 scale, with 10 being high.

If you tallied up the results, what you would notice is that certain of your classmates’ names would come up over and over again. Others would never come up, to the surprise of no one, except of course that these results are strictly confidential.

If you stopped the whole thing there, the people you would worry about from a suicide perspective are the ones who didn’t show up on any lists. The natural human inclination would be to focus energy and time on them.

There is another choice, however, and that would be to do the counter intuitive thing: Work with the people who already considered the MOST friendly, warm, empathetic and caring by their peers, and help them to be more intentional about it.  In a once a week meeting, over lunch.

So which would rise the friendly, empathetic, caring and warm tide the most? The answer is actually very cut and dried: Do the counter-intuitive thing and work with the relationship champions. While the tickle down theory doesn’t work very well in economics, it works wonders in interpersonal relationships.  

The result is an entire student body that is more friendly, empathetic, warm and caring – more willing to reach even those students who are hard to befriend.  The ones that often need it the most.

That the entire student body is more caring, etc. can be verified easily through the science of it, doing the same survey a couple more times during the school year.

I read through about 1,000+ pages of dissertations, and did the program myself. Concordia did this facilitator program for at least two decades. The man who originated the idea, Bill Langefeld, was good friends with the man who invented the Strength-Finder survey, Don Clifton.

Conclusion


It would be my own cognitive distortion to tell you that your leaders at your school are ignorant and uncaring about what to do about this serious problem. I am sure that they are doing the best that they can.  There is much I do not know about what they are doing behind the scenes.

I have always tried in my life to ask what is possible, rather than catalog all the things that are not possible, and why. So this is my best thoughts right now, perhaps other things will come to mind as we go.

I look forward to talking with you about this when we go ice fishing. If you think it will help at your school, I will send it to the Principal.

I love you Zachary. No matter how bad things get, this too will pass. All we have to do is stay alive.

Dad

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