USA TODAY International Edition

Suicides rise among middle schoolers

Pressure in variety of forms can prove deadly for those who have yet to develop coping skills

- James M. O’Neill

America is experienci­ng a striking rise in suicide among middle school students.

The suicide rate among 10to 14- year- olds doubled between 2007 and 2014, for the first time surpassing the death rate in that age group from car crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2014 alone, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.

“It’s alarming. We’re even getting cases involving 8- and 9year olds,” said Clark Flatt, who started the Jason Foundation in Tennessee 20 years ago to help educate teachers about teen suicide after his 16- yearold son took his own life. “It’s scary. This isn’t an emerging problem — it’s here.”

Researcher­s, educators and psychologi­sts say several factors — increased pressure on students to achieve academical­ly, more economic uncertaint­y, increased fear of terrorism and social media — are behind the rise in suicides among the young.

The use of social media is a particular worry because it has amped up bullying among a vulnerable age group. Young students in prior generation­s left school each afternoon and avoided someone who bullied them until the next day or week. Now, social media allows for bullying 24/ 7 — and the bully doesn’t even have to be someone the child knows.

“With social media you can’t turn people off,” said Phyllis Alongi, clinical director at the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, a group founded by parents in Monmouth County whose children died by suicide.

“Increasing the risk of suicide can be a lot of interactin­g pieces, from family issues to other stressors.” Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisor­s Associatio­n

Social media have also been behind the spread of dangerous phenomenon­s like the Blue Whale Challenge, which is recently rumored to have encouraged a handful of suicides of young people around the world. The game asks players to attempt daily tasks that include everything from watching horror films to self- mutilation. The parents of a 15- year- old Texas boy said last week that their son was participat­ing in the challenge when he was found hanging in his closet, his cellphone propped up so it could broadcast his death.

There is so much pressure on young people they can become overwhelme­d because they haven’t yet developed the coping skills adults rely on. Something an adult easily dismisses because of a lifetime of experience can be hard for a middle schooler to shrug off.

“Middle school is a very difficult time,” said Maurice Elias, a psychologi­st at Rutgers University and director of its SocialEmot­ional Learning Lab. It’s a challengin­g age, as some start pu- berty before others, and some are discerning their sexual orientatio­n.

“They are trying to figure out who they are,” Elias said. “They are very sensitive to criticism. So they are particular­ly prone to suicidal ideation and even action. A lot of times they exaggerate the situation. If it’s a little thing, they think it’s a huge thing. If someone doesn’t like them, they think that nobody will like them forever.”

The statistics are heartbreak­ing. Nationwide, the annual rate climbed from 0.9 to 2.1 suicides per 100,000 middle schoolers between 2007 and 2014, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The causes of suicide can be complicate­d, and each case is different. A suicide is never the result of a single factor, experts say.

“Increasing the risk of suicide can be a lot of interactin­g pieces, from family issues to other stressors,” said Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisor­s Associatio­n and former chair of the state’s Anti- Bullying Task Force.

Experts say that to reduce suicide among teens, parents and teachers need education about warning signs. These can include changes in feelings, displays of distress, a sense of hopelessne­ss, a change in appetite, sleep loss, lost interest in hobbies or giving away favored possession­s, Alongi said.

Parents need to speak to their child if they think something is wrong.

“Always err on the side of asking the question,” Flatt said. “And don’t accept their first answer that everything is fine, especially if they are acting differentl­y.”

He said his son, Jason, was a regular 16- year- old who loved sports and got B’s in school. But the B’s became D’s, and Jason failed to finish homework. Then Jason, who loved football, came out on the front step of their home and told his dad that he no longer wanted to play.

“I thought he had been through a tough spring practice and was tired,” Flatt recalled. “I said, ‘ You certainly don’t have to play on my account, but why don’t you wait to decide until Au- gust.’ I lost him three weeks later. I hadn’t asked him why he didn’t want to play anymore.

“It’s tough to sit across from your son and ask if he’s thinking about hurting himself,” Flatt said. “If he says ‘ yes,’ he’s put his life in your hands, and you need to know how to deal with it — don’t learn what you should do after the fact.”

In the years since, he said he has spoken with hundreds of kids who attempted suicide and they all said that no one ever asked them if they wanted to hurt themselves. “If you already think nobody loves you or cares, and then nobody asks if you’re OK, that just reinforces what they’re thinking,” Flatt said.

Research has shown that four of five teens who attempt suicide showed warning signs beforehand, Flatt said. “If we can train people to recognize those signs and respond, we can reduce the numbers,” he said.

Alongi agreed. “The top myth about suicide is that if I talk about suicide I am planting the idea in their heads,” she said.

Experts also say schools need to create a welcoming environmen­t where all students feel accepted, and to teach students the social and emotional skills that will help them navigate conflict.

Training educators is essential, experts say. “Training teachers is the single most impactful thing a state can do,” Flatt said.

Concerns about suicide were also part of the reason the state passed an anti- bullying act in 2006. “Most bullying cases occur in a school setting,” said Stuart Green, director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention.

 ?? KATARZYNAB­IALASIEWIC­Z, GETTY IMAGES/ ISTOCKPHOT­O ?? The suicide rate among 10- to 14year- olds doubled between 2007 and 2014.
KATARZYNAB­IALASIEWIC­Z, GETTY IMAGES/ ISTOCKPHOT­O The suicide rate among 10- to 14year- olds doubled between 2007 and 2014.

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