MONROE, La. — There has been a slight drop in serious suicide attempts among American students over the past few years, according to the Louisiana Public Health Institute.
But the federally funded Suicide Prevention Resource Center says young people in the South consider death by their own hand more often than the national average.
And one school district in northeast Louisiana has recently suffered terrible tragedy. Epidemiologists refer to three or more suicides in a specific location as a “cluster.” Northeast Louisiana is now in that awful spiral.
Ouachita Parish Superintendent of Schools, Bob Webber, is deeply concerned about the children in his district:
“We did have three students in our school system who committed suicide last school year. And already we have two this school year and we’re less than six weeks into the school year.”
Webber and his administration are desperate for answers. The superintendent says there are few commonalities among the students that might provide a clue:
“Each one was a little bit different. Apparently, of course, each one was a little bit emotionally disturbed and they had some problems in their life. But there’s no one thing that you could point to, like not all five were bullied, not all five were necessarily unpopular. Really, their personalities seemed to be quite varied.”
Flint Smith is a school psychologist in Ouachita Parish. He is fostering efforts among teachers – and fellow students – to learn a new approach to keeping kids alive:
“Understanding the warning signs, even the subtle signs that a student may put out there; secondly, how to take that and refer it to the appropriate people. Make sure you pay attention to those kids who have made themselves at risk in the past, through either some documentation of a previous attempt, history of depression – some of those risk factors. And our job is to educate the teachers more on what are the risk factors for kids.”
Smith lists changes in behavior, mood swings and a drop in academic performance as potential indicators that a child is in trouble. He says that the expanding suicide awareness program in the district will include ongoing training for teachers.
John Nelson Pope is an assistant professor of counseling at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He says that rooting out teenage suicidal tendencies is a complex problem:
“They are raging with emotions and feelings. And there’s a sense of extremes that, perhaps, they go through. There’s a sense of isolation that a young person may be feeling at the time; for example they’re more sensitive to bullying.”
Whatever the reason, whenever there is a suicide, families are left behind. Teddi McGehee lost her university-aged son, Brandon, to suicide in 2002. She says that if there are specific indicators among those who take their own lives, they are difficult to spot:
“People who are depressed hide it and hide it well because they want to be normal. They don’t want to burden you.”
McGehee had worked as a school psychologist in Ouachita Parish for 15 years when her son took his own life. She now heads up a prevention group called Heartbeat Monroe; she says coping skills can be learned:
“This survivorship – as in a lot of others – has a lot of details that you cannot imagine. You think ‘I’m going to be sad.’ But it’s way beyond sad. There’s just a bunch of odd things that go with it, like your loss of energy and your inability to relate to people. And we can say, ‘we’ve been there, we know, we’ve done that. And some day you will feel better.’”
Officials say communities and schools in northeast Louisiana will need to draw together and use all of the tools at their disposal to bring the cluster of student suicides to an end.
On Sunday, October 16, Heatbeat Monroe is hosting a suicide awareness and memorial walk in West Monroe’s Kiroli Park.