Multiple suicides plague some area schools

A 17-year Woodbury High School student killed herself yesterday. A senior boy at the same school killed himself a few weeks ago. A 9th grader in Mounds View killed herself at her home last weekend. She wasn’t the first student in the district this year to take her own life, either.

I’ve just violated the experts’ advice for how the media should report on teen suicide.

“The best advice I can give you is it’s not a headline story; it’s not a front page story or above the fold,” Dr. Dan Reidenberg of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) told me this afternoon when I asked him for advice on reporting on the issue of teen suicide in the wake of these latest suicides. “The story should be preventive and educational in approach.”

Dr. Reidenberg was at the Mounds View Woodbury (Note: Dr. Reidenberg misspoke during the interview and originally indicated Woodbury) school this morning to help teachers anticipate what the students needed today. He’ll make a community presentation next Tuesday. “Some (teachers) don’t want to deal with this at all. Some are grieving themselves. They feel very guilty. They feel very responsible that they should have known more or done more. Some are very angry; they’re angry that these things have occurred and the districts haven’t done more. Some are angry at the students. They really want to know what they can do so this doesn’t happen again.”

“The teachers are really struggling with this. They want information and they want to get a message out to students,” he said. But he said the biggest challenge teachers and schools face is that students usually know more about the suicide before they do because of social networks. “That poses a tremendous challenge for schools and teachers with what they can and can’t do around helping their students.”

Reidenberg says the extent to which teachers can help depends on school policies. “Some school policies don’t permit you to speak at all about a suicide; there’s only a message that goes out from the principal or the superintendent and they’re not allowed to do anything. Other schools are allowed to let students grieve and talk about the loss that they’re suffering, but it needs to have some boundaries and parameters around that so that it doesn’t take over their lives and it doesn’t take over the reason that they’re there, which is to go to school.”

He says the most important thing in the wake of a suicide, is to prevent another one — a copycat suicide. “It’s not recommended to have a memorial at the school, or a special chair for the student who’s no longer there, or a mural, or a painting, or even a page in a yearbook ” he said. “That potentially is a risky kind of thing. So we help the schools learn how to teach the kids appropriately and move on with their life — being able to move on with their friend… but not have it raise the risk for those who might be vulnerable.”

The rate of teen suicide is up slightly in Minnesota, Reidenberg reports, but not to a statistically significant degree. Nationwide, about 11 kids kill themselves every day — about 95 people in all age groups kill themselves each day and there is no single time of the year when it’s clearly more common. “It’s a myth that suicides occur more frequently around the holidays. November and December are the lowest months of the year when suicides occur,” he said.

“Ninety percent of the people who die by suicide have a psychiatric illness at the time of their death,” he said. “It’s not just one thing that leads to a suicide. People often think it’s one thing that happens, and it might be the last thing that happened, but somebody doesn’t just wake up in the morning and say, ‘today is my last day.'”

These are the warning signs of suicide, according to Reidenberg:

— Suicide is expressed. People talking about or writing about suicide. Looking for suicide sites on the Internet.

— Dramatic mood changes.

— School challenges that come about seemingly unexpected. High-risk behaviors — driving more erratically or climbing onto high places and jumping down, he said.

— Changes in substance abuse. “Although we don’t want kids to be using substances at all,” Dr. Reidenberg said, “when there’s a marked change in what they’re using or how frequently they’re using, we want people to pay attention to them.”

— Behavior changes in school, such as irritability, fighting with everybody all the time. Fighting with peers or faculty.

— Withdrawing from social things they used to be involved with.

“Suicide is one of the most preventable deaths there is, ” he said. “But until we break through this stigma and shame around the word, that it’s not a character flaw or a moral deficiency, then we’re going to continue to see these things happen.”

Listen to the entire interview.

  1. Listen Dr. Dan Reidenberg of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE)

  • Kevin Watterson

    Quote: “The story should be preventive and educational in approach.”

    Shouldn’t the story be fact-based in approach, reporting on what happened?

  • Bob Collins

    He’s not suggesting it not be.

  • Bill Rahn

    I teach at Woodbury High School; the young lady mentioned in your lead paragraph was a student in my first hour Math class. In fact, I knew both students.

    When people ask me what I teach, my responce is always “kids”; this is never more true than on days like this.

    I have nothing but praise for my fellow faculty members, the building administration, guidance staff, and district administration during this difficult time.

    While the anger that Dr. Reidenberg notes may be present, I have to honestly say I have not seen it. Our school community has twice worked very hard to pull it together, and keep the best interests of our students, and the larger community in mind as we react to these unfortunate events.

  • Kara

    I am a high school student at East Ridge, and a lot of kids knew the two who committed suicide at Woodbury. This article also omits the suicide of a student at Park High School in Cottage Grove. There is not a lot of anger at the school that Dr. Reidenberg claimed: everyone is very sad and the community is trying to pull everything together. There are also not always “warning signs”. The girl who committed suicide yesterday was a very sweet, funny girl. The only sign that she showed was sad posts on a social networking website. The schools and the staff have been wonderful, helping grieving friends and keeping in the best interest of all of the students.

    Secondly, this was not a “copy-cat suicide”. These events were related, but not “copy-cat”. These deaths in the community are nothing but a tragedy, and should be treated as such. These kids didn’t want their deaths to attract attention and “make a statement” with their death. Also, this article wasn’t about the tragedy of these deaths, but the comments of a doctor about what he believes these suicides were.

  • Joanna

    To Kara and Bill Rahn, and all the family, friends and communities who have suffered these losses, my heart goes out to you. People will have lots of complicated and different feelings about these events, some public, some private.

    I could have been one of these stories, because of untreated depression. I went for years without understanding why I was in so much pain, why ending my life sometimes seemed like the only way to make it stop. I’m grateful to have had medical treatment that keeps me safe. But not everyone who is mentally ill is suicidal and not all suicides are the result of mental illness.

    A book that has really helped me understand what happened to me and how hard it can be to get help, or how complicated the aftermath is for survivors is

    Out of the Nightmare: Recovery from Depression and Suicidal Pain, by David L Conroy, PhD. He says, and I believe this to be true, “Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.”

    I hope that folks can feel compassion for each other as well as for those who suffered.

  • Kassie

    Suicide just isn’t talked about in our society, it isn’t just the high schools. When the chef of Grand Cafe killed himself there was only one mention in everything I read that is was a suicide. Everywhere else called it a “sudden death.” And when people don’t talk about suicide, more happen. People with depression and mental illness can be embarrassed or ashamed of their feelings and don’t look for help. Kids are the same way. Society needs to be more open about suicide and mental illness and that is how we will prevent deaths, not by hiding it.

  • Hailey

    You can’t define who these people were because of what actions they took. I personally was close to both of them, and not one of them showed signs of what was to come. They were both upbeat loving people, who cared so much about their friends and family. Sometimes you just don’t know.

  • Lily

    My heartfelt sympathy to all.

    I am a mental health professional. In my 25 years of work I would guess I have known of about 10 suicides. None were people who stood out as actively suicidal, though all were at high risk due to their serious and persistent mental illnesses. Suicide prevention programs and awareness are good, but will always have their limitations.

  • Jason

    “The best advice I can give you is it’s not a headline story; it’s not a front page story or above the fold,”

    Wow. Does this guy know anything about mental illness? It is a front page story. Shame on the local papers for not running stories on it. You can’t stop something if you try to cover it up and ignore it.

    Oh, and by the way. the teachers should feel guilty. They should have done more. The district should have done more. How are you going to know how to prevent it unless you publicize the why. Perhaps it’s the same reason the Irish girl committed suicide. Not talking about that only allows it to continue. People who don’t want to talk about it are cowards and enablers.

  • Kay Banister Schaffer

    I am a teacher at one of the high schools mentioned. After the first suicide in November, the AP Psychology students researched and developed a plan to provide “a first aid station” for students who were really stressed. It would be staffed by a teacher on his/her prep hour and trained students. Our students are dealing with high levels of stress, emotional, and pyschological issues but are hesitant to meet with their deans. They feel they have no where to turn. When the Psychology students presented their plan that had backing of parents as well as mental health professionals to school officials they were faced with little or no encouragement. As a result they were very angry at this last death. I join them in their feelings. Our anger isn’t over the loss of another life as much as it is over the lack of concern for the emotional and mental health of the students.


  • David

    I graduated from Cloquet Senior High School and when I was a Junior a Senior committed suicide. It was talked about heavily within the school by administration and by the students. For a time there was a memorial in a town park next to the building where the student killed himself. Students placed flowers around the area and painted the building.

    After a few months the building was repainted and it angered some students but the thought was there is a time to grieve and there is a time to move on and all the while there was a delicate balance of trying to prevent glorification of the act.

    It was a tragedy, but thankfully it was a tragedy that was not copied.

    My experience leads me to believe it’s better to talk about it, grieve, and learn to move on. A process that doesn’t seem to be taught anymore.

    My thoughts and prayers go out to the friends and family of this student.

  • Kim

    I knew the student from a few weeks ago. He was a great guy. I did not know this young lady, but I’m sure she as great also. My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and all the students of the school. My heart aches for the family.

  • Mike W.

    The recent suicides point out the need for all schools–everywhere-to have qualified mental health professionals available to students. Too often counselors or “deans” play a role in discipline and are not available in the way they need to be to help students. Let’s prevent suicides, school shootings and things in between.

  • Barb

    I’m overwhelmed by the number of suicides that have taken place this year; one in my family also. Having suffered from depression, I can tell you – It IS preventable. People need someone to talk to and to feel safe about the emotions and thoughts they are having. My heart is heavy with empathy for the family, friends and loved ones of those who have taken this path. But–my personal thought is that Suicide Prevention means offering resources and safe places for those struggling to get the support they need. And sometimes, it isn’t the school counselor. Sometimes, it may be a person who just listens and follows up and SHOWS you they care. That person may be You.

  • Patty

    I am a parent of a student from Mounds View. I disagree about the copy-cat suicides. Mounds View has not dealt with the 2 freshman suicides this year very well. They want to push the problem under the rug and ignore it. I feel that the kids need to deal with this tragedy. Whether it is placing flowers on their chair or a mention in the yearbook. By ignoring what happened you are saying that they did not matter. There isn’t anyone that the students can talk to. The deans are unapproachable. If I would have known about the psychology students plan from the above post, I would have supported it 100%.

  • Emily

    I am a 13 year old homeshooled girl In Washington State thats

    heading into depression like this. For weeks

    I’ve been feeling lonely, helpless, and wondering why I’ve ended up like this. I’ve

    never felt this depressed before in my life.

    Its been almost 3 weeks ever since my boyfriend from Minnesota had texted or sent me messages

    on the computer. His step Dad took his

    iPod away for personal reasons, so he can’t

    talk to me in any way. ever since then, I’ve

    been feeling lonely. I just miss him so much,

    I can’t even sleep at night. I still can’t stop

    crying, thinking about him… Im just worried about what could happen to him, cause he’s facing a few of these problems as well.

    I just want my baby back. Im breaking apart.

    Looking at his pictures, reading the old messages that he sent to me before this all started, isn’t helping at all.

    My mind still clings to the image of him, and

    won’t go away… How can I even go on with my life when the biggest part of it is missing?

    I love him… and I always will no matter what. I just need to know if he’s ok…

  • Celeste

    Emily: Tell someone in your family or among your friends about your feelings. You are brave for recognizing your emotions and for expressing those! Seek help so that you can stay in the world for yourself and for those you love. It will get better if you do.

  • missy

    This article also fails to mention a completed suicide in Stillwater/Oakdale that took place on May 13th, 2010. He was a 17 year old young man.

    Washington County teens are at high risk right now and professionals in the area are working to facilitate groups for teens who miss their friend(s), have depression themselves, etc. These groups will be free and are set up to support teens who have experienced loss and will be advertised on facebook. Check memorial sites for the teens who have taken their lives for more information.