Teen Suicide: Why Is It So Hard To Talk About It?

What can one city do to prevent suicide?

Posted Mar 03, 2014

It’s been a month since a high school student named Roee Grutman died by suicide. Grutman’s death was the third suicide of a Newton, Massachusetts teenager since this fall. Karen Douglas and Katherine Stack died within weeks of each other in October.

As each of these deaths reached the public through news reports, I was approached by different people in my life asking if I would be writing about them. Exhausted and saddened by this most recent news, I asked myself and others how, and if, I should attempt to cover these deaths.

All of the different parts of myself that I bring to this blog came together with this news—my identity as a survivor of my father’s suicide, my professional work in suicide prevention, my new role as a parent, and the ten years I’ve spent living down the street from Newton.

I found that my identity as a survivor made me very sensitive to drawing attention to families that may not want it, at the same time as my professional training and orientation told me to give people words to talk about what was happening. As a new parent, a part of me just broke trying to imagine what the parents of these young people must be feeling.

The public dialogue about Newton has been focused on the pressure Newton teens may feel to be successful, particularly academically. From a professional standpoint, I'm glad to see parents, educators, mental health professionals, and others who care about teens talking about the effects of pressure and stress on well-being.

But I also know that, suicide, similar to relationship violence and bullying, crosses class and culture. I would be disappointed if the dialogue about teen suicide in Newton started and stopped with a conversation about stress. Many teens, in many communities, experience extreme stress—sometimes because of academics and sometimes because they walk through gang territory on their way to school.

When I first moved to Boston, I worked in another community struggling with trying to prevent teen suicide. This community does not have world-class public schools or an engaged parent community. What they do have is a network of health and social service providers committed to making change and political will supporting suicide prevention as a critical community issue.

Common to both communities is the challenge of how to address suicide and suicide prevention in the schools, where teens spend a good portion of their days. In both of these school systems, just a few miles yet so far apart, there are many who do not want to say the word “suicide,” for fear that just talking about it, just uttering that one word, will make things worse.

If three Newton teens had died in the past six months, I would still feel exhausted and saddened by it. But, the whole truth is that three young people died by suicide. Without acknowledging the reality of suicide, we can’t work toward preventing it.

I have tremendous admiration for the parents, teachers, and youth workers who are talking with teens about suicide. I am impressed by the honesty of the families who have lost children. While so many are watching, while the spotlight is on Newton, show them how a community like Newton can come together.

Copyright 2014 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved