to School Suicides
Back to School
It might shock you that suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens (10-19 years old) in the United States. To date, many studies have identified potential youth suicide risk factors and characteristics. For example, teen students are more likely to take their life when alcohol or drugs are involved, if their parents are divorced, if they have access to a gun, are failing education, are involved in teen pregnancy, hear of other teen suicides, have low self-esteem or are highly sexually active. Although these findings are clearly related to youth suicide, there is little community discussion about the fact that these risky behaviors often originate from interactions with peers at school.
A study published in the Economics of Education Review identified that youth suicide rates very closely follow the academic calendar, and noted a summer effect, in which suicide rates dropped significantly during the summer holidays. More importantly, they controlled for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) to ensure that it was attending school and not the change in seasons and associated lack of sunlight that is driving youth suicide. They found that it is school attendance itself that is the problem.
This is no surprise really, as these suicide-heavy teen statistics all but disappear after high school, irrespective of the season. In fact, while suicides rates have more than tripled for US high schoolers since the 1950s, rates of suicide among adults and the elderly have thankfully diminished over the years.
So, what are the primary drivers for back to school suicides? Recent high profile cases of bullycide, like those in Massachusetts, clearly demonstrate that increased stress and decreased mental health induced by the social aspects of school-life can easily manifest in suicide. One mechanism that may decrease the rate of suicide over the summer is a decrease in negative social interactions, as youth have more latitude in summer months to select the peers they want to hang out with and are not forced into stressful social confrontations through school attendance.
However, cruel, hurtful or humiliating, social interactions are not the only thing students have to worry about in school. Add to this test score performance and parental demands to perform, media-borne pressures in being cool and fitting in, the trials and tribulations of learning to think and act independently within a rapidly changing mind and body, and it is crystal clear that for some students, school life can be an overwhelming, pressure-filled, mind-bending roller coaster. Most importantly, we dont currently have an effective, nationwide support system or set of preventative measures to help deal with these ever increasing pressures, that teaches children how to effectively develop their emotional control and manage stress, which is essential for healthy and successful modern living.
Some of you may be starting to feel like this is yet another slamming of the US education system, when really this is a largely global phenomenon. Many studies report suicide as the third or fourth most common cause of teen death in hundreds of countries, typically after death by accidents, then violence, drugs or HIV, depending on the country. Whether these tragic teen suicides are also closely interlinked with school life, as in the US, remains to be seen.
While there are essential and painstakingly obvious life-changing benefits to having an education, it is imperative for the safety of our children to discuss the potential costs of the current and clearly overwhelming school-related pressures felt by so many of todays youth. In fact, in a nationwide CDC survey it was found that over 16% of students reported seriously considering suicide. These numbers are too high to be overlooked.
Moreover, these results should definitely be acknowledged when considering the topical question of whether the academic year should be extended. A study that linked longer instructional days to better test scores and student performance, as well real life instances of high test scores coming from extended tuition guinea pig schools, have been the primary fuel for the give them more, itll make it better line of argument.
However, in light of the back to school blues study and the mental health challenges a relatively large number of kids face, we should take extreme care and diligence in predicting the mental health implications of changing school calendar policies. While we want our kids to perform at their best, is this truly worth it when we may have to pay the ultimate price, more childrens lives?
Hansen, B., & Lang, M. (2011). Back to school blues: Seasonality of youth suicide and the academic calendar Economics of Education Review, 30 (5), 850-861 DOI: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2011.04.012
3) Marcotte,D. and Hansen, H. (2010)
Time for school? Education Next, 10 (1), pp. 5259.
High School and
Teen Suicide, A Connection?
This ideal scenario may have been true for some people who had positive High School experiences. Of course, the benefit of time and distance can put a shine on things that may have been less than ideal. As we grow older, there is a tendency to have a romantic view of the days when we were young.
However, for most of us, the reality of those adolescent school years ranged from uneventful all the way to awful and even traumatizing. In fact, it is likely that you went to school with students who were killed in auto accidents, were victims of crimes, or who committed suicide.
Over the past fifty years the length of the school year has increased. In many districts, the academic year begins in August and ends at the end of May. The reasons for this are many. For example, the decline in student performance in math, science and reading skills has alarmed the public. The fact that many gains in student achievement and performance were lost during the summer months stimulated many concerned people to call for a longer school year. It seemed to make sense that a longer academic year would help American youngsters catch up with their counterparts in other nations where school achievement levels are very high, such as China, India and Japan. In my opinion, there is no doubt about the value of a longer academic school year in helping students to make gains in their learning. However, it seems that there is something about High School that exposes students to very great risks.
Professsors Benjamin Hansen and Matthew Lang recently published a study that examined rates of suicide, accidents and homicides among American teenagers dating back many years and what they found is both interesting and disturbing. The article, Back to School Blues: Seasonality of Youth Suicide and the Academic Calendar, can be found in the Economics of Education Review.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents. What is startling about Hansen and Langs study is that they found that the rates of suicide increase during the school year but dramatically decrease during summer vacaton and holidays such such as Christmas and Spring break. The results were consistent over multiple numbers of years. For example, the suicide rate tripled for 15 to 19 year olds between 1959 and 1990.
Factors other than High School attendance were carefully studied to see if they might account for the increased suicide rate. For example, Seasonal Affective Disorder(SAD), which is likely to increase depression in the northeast when the skies are often cloudy and dull, was explored as a culprit that might explain what is happening to our adolescents. Nevertheless, the rate of adolescent suicide remained steady and consistent in states that are warm and sunny all year long. The decline in these suicide rates remained steady during summers and holidays regardless of state and weather. The rates remained steady for both males and females. The rates remained stable over ethnic, racial, and income groups across the nation.
Does High School put our kids at increased risk of hurting themselves?
There are certainly many pitfalls that teens face on the way to adulthood. Stress, worry, anxiety, tension and depression take a terrible toll on our young people. There are repeated headline news stories about kids taking their own lives as a result of bullying. During the school day, there is peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol. Competition for popularity among the in group and dreadful feelings experienced by those who are among the outsiders, results in emotional conflict and pain. Dating the opposite sex or facing homosexuality can be extremely painful for adolescents who struggle with low self esteem. In addition, family conflict, divorce, financial difficulties and joblessness can feed domestic abuse and violence. Any and all of these factors can make it difficult for our kids to be at school.
Among the greatest pressure of all is having to focus attention during and after class, read, complete homework and term papers, study for tests and take part in extra curricular activities.
The answer to these problems is not to
reduce the school year because many benefits are gained from
its longer length. Instead, it is necessary to find
solutions for our young people so that they can better
handle pressure. It might be that our schools need more
school-based mental health experts to offer emotional
support to young people and their families. It is also
possible that our schools are just too large. Too many young
people can get overlooked because they become anonymous in
schools that have so many students that the day is divided
into shifts of attendance. Perhaps it is not only the teens
who need help at this time but their families as well.
Adolescence is experienced not only by the youngster but by
the family because they also have to cope with shifting
moods, conflicts and pressures.
How high school
The heightened risk of suicide among gay teens has recently pulled the issue into the national spotlight, especially the It Gets Better campaign initiated by Dan Savage, but the rates for all teens are astonishingly high.
What is behind our high rates of youngsters taking their own lives?
Scientists have identified many contributing factors: Discrimination, the number of sexual partners, substance abuse, being dumped by a romantic partner, parental divorce, child physical and sexual abuse, bullying and even excessive video-gaming play a role.
Scholars at the University of Chicagos National Opinion Research Center have offered a novel contributing factor to teen suicide: high school.
In a careful and persuasive paper released last fall called Back to School Blues: Seasonality of Youth Suicide and the Academic Calendar, Benjamin Hansen and Matthew Lang point out that suicides for 14- to 18-year-olds drop abruptly during June, July and August.
The decrease in suicides for 14- to 18-year-olds during the summer months is stark, while the 19- to 25-year-olds see a slight rise in suicide rates during the summer, the authors point out.
The fact that 15- to 18-year-old suicide rates decrease in the summer, but the 19-year-old suicide does not, suggests that the high-school calendar is playing a prominent role in youth suicide, they conclude.
Suicide isnt the only violent act teens are more likely to commit while school is in session. A 2003 National Bureau of Economic Research paper, Are Idle Hands the Devils Workshop? Incapacitation, Concentration and Juvenile Crime, by Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren, used the natural variation produced by teacher in-service days to estimate whether school increased or decreased juvenile crime.
The answer? School attendance appeared to increase violent juvenile crime by almost 30 percent.
How could more time in school lead to more violence and suicide?
Hansen and Lang point to the stress created by the high school environment, but they also point out: Although research has shown that alcohol consumption, poor self-esteem and sexual activity [are] related to youth suicide, there is little discussion about the fact that these risky behaviors tend to originate at school.
Jacob and Lefgren call it a concentration effect. Schools are places where the teens much outnumber the adults, and the peer-driven social interactions raise the risk of violence.
Lord of the Flies, in other words.
Adolescents torture each other, they fear for their place in social heirarchies of their own making, tempt one another to abuse drugs and alcohol and to engage in short-term sexual activity that results in anger, jealousy and (when dumped) depression.
We group children into large schools primarily for bureaucratic convenience. But teens do better when they spend more time with adults, who are civilized and less time interacting in cultures created by peers, who arent yet.
It makes you wonder why anyone ever
objects to home-schooling.
blues? Warning signs of depression
Youth suicide statistics are shocking. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for ages 10-24 and the third-leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease, combined.
A childs mental health is especially important as she heads back to school or off to college, said psychotherapist Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Dont Do.
For kids with mental health issues, the start of the school year can be very difficult. Fears about the new school year may lead to anxiety weeks, or even months, before the first day of school, Morin said. If the start of the school year doesnt go well, a sense of dread may set in, which can be extremely harmful to a childs mental health.
Parents should be concerned when a childs feelings about school begin to interfere with his daily life, she said.
If he cant enjoy the last few days of summer or if hes frequently asking questions about what to expect from school this year, hes likely experiencing more concern than most kids, Morin said.
To see how your child is coping, take a good look at her.
Depressed kids look a little different than depressed adults, Morin said. Rather than sadness, depression tends to look more like irritability in kids. Unfortunately, many parents think their childs agitation stems from adolescent mood swings, and a childs depression goes undiagnosed.
Changes in behavior can be another indicator of depression. A child who stops playing sports or one who starts staying home all the time may be experiencing a mental health issue, Morin said. Sleep difficulties are also common among kids with depression. Many of them stay up all hours of the night, then have difficulty waking for school, she said.
Parents should look for behavioral changes, like increased defiance or increased withdrawal. They should also listen to what a child says about school. Parents shouldnt ignore statements like, No one likes me, or Im going to get picked on, Morin said.
If youre concerned, ask questions, such as, What do you think the best part of the school year will be? and if a child struggles to find anything good, it could be a sign hes struggling with depression, Morin said.
Missed homework assignments or declining grades may also signal depression.
If a child who usually performs well misses homework assignments or struggles to score well on tests, parents should keep an eye out for a mental health issue, Morin said.
How do you know when your child may need professional help dealing with their mental health?
Parents should take any threats of suicide very seriously. Most kids say something several times before they make any actual attempts of suicide. Never assume your child is just trying to get attention, Morin said. Self-harm should also be taken seriously. Children who cut themselves or burn themselves should be evaluated by a mental health professional.
If parents are questioning whether a child could be depressed, speak to your childs pediatrician and ask if what youre seeing is normal and if your child needs further evaluation.
Like most mental health issues,
depression is very treatable, Morin said.
Parents often avoid treatment because theyre not
sure if its necessary or they worry that their child
will be labeled. Treatment with a mental health professional
is confidential and its best to err on the side of
caution. Depression can be lethal.
Previous research has found evidence of academic benefits to longer school years. This paper investigates one of the many potential costs of increased school year length, documenting a dramatic decrease in youth suicide in months when school is not in session. A detailed analysis does not find that other potential explanations such as economic conditions, weather or seasonal affective disorder patterns can explain the decrease. This evidence suggests that youth may face increased stress and decreased mental health when school is in session.
We document a large decrease in youth
suicide in during summer. ? Adults from a slightly older age
ranges exhibit no summer decrease in suicide. ? The summer
decline in youth suicide is not explained by weather,
unemployment, or SAD. ? The increase rate of youth suicide
during non-summer months aligns with school calendar. ? That
increase may be indicative of broader stress experienced by
youth in school.
Dealing with the
The end of summer and the beginning of a new school year can be a stressful time for parents and children, says psychologist Lynn Bufka, PhD. While trying to manage work and the household, parents can sometimes overlook their childrens feelings of nervousness or anxiety as school begins. Working with your children to build resilience and manage their emotions can be beneficial for the psychological health of the whole family.
Fortunately, children are extremely capable of coping with change and parents can help them in the process by providing a setting that fosters resilience and encourages them to share and express their feelings about returning to school.
APA offers the following back-to-school tips:
Practice the first day of school
routine: Getting into a sleep routine before the first week
of school will aide in easing the shock of waking up early.
Organizing things at home backpack, binder, lunchbox
or cafeteria money will help make the first morning
go smoothly. Having healthy, yet kid-friendly lunches will
help keep them energized throughout the day. Also, walking
through the building and visiting your childs locker
and classroom will help ease anxiety of the unknown. Get to
know your neighbors: If your child is starting a new school,
walk around your block and get to know the neighborhood
children. Try and set up a play date, or, for an older
child, find out where neighborhood kids might go to safely
hang out, like the community pool, recreation center or
park. Talk to your child: Asking your children about their
fears or worries about going back to school will help them
share their burden. Inquire as to what they liked about
their previous school or grade and see how those positives
can be incorporated into their new experience. Empathize
with your children: Change can be difficult, but also
exciting. Let your children know that you are aware of what
theyre going through and that you will be there to
help them in the process. Nerves are normal, but highlight
that not everything that is different is necessarily bad. It
is important to encourage your children to face their fears
instead of falling in to the trap of encouraging avoidance.
Get involved and ask for help: Knowledge of the school and
the community will better equip you to understand your
childs surroundings and the transition he or she is
undergoing. Meeting members of your community and school
will foster support for both you and your child. If you feel
the stress of the school year is too much for you and your
child to handle on your own, seeking expert advice from a
mental health professional, such as a psychologist, will
help you better manage and cope. Special thanks to Mary
Alvord, PhD, for her help with this article.
My eyes teared up immediately. The weightlessness! I didnt dare dream of a baby of my own someday. Too many unknowns. Besides, how could anyone anyone deserve such happiness? Did I rate that kind of privilege? I doubted it.
I saw Katie in a dream shortly before I found out about her. Not a daydream, mind you. No sense tempting fate. I saw her in my sleep a little girl, and perfect. When I looked up the meaning of other symbols in the dream, I was struck by this that everything about the labor and delivery and her would be so easy.
It was. It has been.
Well, except for letting her go. Thats another story. We were arm in arm recently, saying goodbye to her bedroom on the morning we left for college, when I reminded her how many sweet dreams shed had. How many had come true! Sweet dreams indeed.
Ive waxed smug on this blog about the importance of having a few things you want to make happen in the world besides a happy family. When a child grows up, after all, youre going to need something else to do.
What a crock, Ive been thinking. Nothing can compete with the fun of having Katie around.
Which is true. That chapter is mostly closed.
Would it surprise you that after less than a week, I could imagine being happy again? Someday. Not today. But someday. Thats a start.
It happened twice, actually, that first week.
The first time was watching our pal Dustin help my husband and me perfect how our voices sound on the radio. Thats part of my work? How fun! Dustins such a pro and he loves his job so much I found myself getting caught up in the excitement of working in radio all over again.
The second time was being on the phone with Skip, our affiliate relations guy and Mike, the executive we work with at Radio America. In some ways it was the highlight of my career. I felt completely at home sharing my passion with suits, a term I use with affection about the difference I want to make in the world. But this was a meeting something I fled corporate America to get away from and it was fun.
Remember my suggestion to cling to whats familiar in the midst of change? Were doing that. We started running again, and we got back to work. But theres a big hole in our routine where time with Katie used to be and I cant get over the quiet. Who knew quiet could be so deafening?
So, what do we do about that? Nothing. Which is, I suddenly realize, the most difficult thing of all.
A line from my essay about Kates first day of kindergarten comes to mind: The grief I feel at Katies growing independence is tempered only by knowing it could be worse. At least I savored those eighteen years...
Apparently, Ill always be a kindergarten mom in recovery. Then again, I had a front-row seat to an amazing show: I got to watch Katie grow up.
She helped me do the same.
Now, I have a brand-new template for dreaming big dreams, and making them come true.
Back To School,
Back To Blues
Although most students experience some degree of sadness at the end of summer break, those feelings have the potential to turn into anxiety or even depression when the school year begins.
Ive never enjoyed going back to school, Highland Park junior Aidan Joseph Ezgur said. But now it has gotten to the point where instead of being sad about it, there is also anxiety.
You're not dreaming. It's real.
Although back-to-school blues dont sound like a real medical condition, its a very real problem and can be easily detected among students at the beginning of the school year, according to Matthew Thatcher, a mental health counselor at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital.
In the first two weeks of school we have a lot more kids who are coming in with signs and symptoms of depression, Thatcher said. It is a real thing and something to be concerned about.
What triggers these feelings? According to Carmen Lynas, a clinical psychologist and founder of Advanced Therapeutic Solutions in Oak Brook, the back-to-school blues can stem from many different fears.
Its usually fear of the unknown not knowing what teacher youll have or what kids will be in your class or fear of the known knowing that its going to be a hard year or knowing that the expectations are higher, Lynas said.
Though the anxiety of going back to school often affects students before classes even start, others feel the effects well into the first half of the school year. Hinsdale Central senior Sara Ramasastry said she just couldnt shake her blues junior year.
Last year I had an awful case of back-to-school blues, Ramasastry said. I just wasnt ready, and for the first month or so I couldnt even settle myself down to do homework or study or anything school-related. I didnt have the motivation.
After a relaxing summer schedule, the thought of a busy school day is less than appealing for some students.
The idea of school just seems exhausting, Ramasastry said. I think trying to plan ahead makes me worry about whether or not I can get it all done, and that causes a lot of stress and can be exhausting.
Talk it out
Venting about the long school day with friends can be a Band-Aid to the problem, but what if your depression or anxiety isnt improving? The thought of talking about it with your parents can be tough especially when theres not a common understanding of the problem.
I think what parents dont understand about it is that they perceive it as the child detesting going back to school, Lynas said. They arent familiar with understanding that there could be a reaction to letting go of something familiar and getting back into something unfamiliar.
Explaining your feelings and fears in more detail can bridge the generational gap between you and your parents.
I talked to my parents about (it) last year, Ezgur said. They knew going in I was upset about going back to school, so when they asked me about it I told them how I felt.
For students who are having a tough time with the new school year, there are a few free remedies to keep in mind.
First, its important that you dont isolate yourself. Even though youre going to school and socializing with your classmates and teachers all day, pay close attention to what youre doing at night. Just because youre using social networks doesnt mean youre being social.
If youre spending hours checking Facebook and Instagram, you could be isolating yourself without even knowing it.
I think it would be easy to fall into a trap where youre not using Facebook and video games to be social, youre just using it to kind of withdraw from whatever youre avoiding, Thatcher said.
That doesnt mean you have to go out with friends every night of the week, but its important to take a closer look at the things you do and why you do them.
I try to think of how much fun it is to be with my friends every day, and sometimes I try to reward myself with time for TV or a book if I get my homework done, Ramasastry said about compromising on her after-school activities.
It can also be beneficial to find a sport or extracurricular youre passionate about. For some students, focusing attention on something fun and active can ease anxiety.
Last but not least, get to the bottom of your blues and find people who can help you get through it. For juniors and seniors, standardized tests like the ACT and SAT can cause a lot of anxiety. So can college applications.
People really stress how it is important to do well on these big tests, but they dont stress enough that there are people out there that can help you study for these tests and that youre not studying alone, Ezgur said.
Whether youre reaching out to a tutor, upperclassman, college counselor or school therapist, there are people who can help you through tough times even if theyre just offering a shoulder to cry on.
Although the back-to-school blues can seem daunting, changing your attitude and outlook can be the first steps to turning things in the right direction.
If youre feeling school
blues or youre feeling sad about going back to school,
remember that this is temporary, and that things can start
to feel better, Lynas said.
Blues: A Family Affair
While for most folks, the summer symbolizes rest and relaxation, back to school time can serve as a jolt back the reality of routine life. As the first school weeks pass, it is not uncommon to feel as if the outside world is gaining momentum, spinning fasting and with more force. School season represents commitment and activity, often-increased stress because there never seems to be enough time.
Parents and kids may experience the back-to-school blues for different reasons although, there are more similarities than one might think.
In order to successfully push through this common set of blahs, it is important to acknowledge that they exist. This can be especially challenging if you and your kids are feeling down. How can you tell if you and/or your kids are experiencing the blues? Here is a list of some common signs:
If you and your kids can relate to at least a few of these symptoms, you may have a bout of the blues. It is important to note that the back-to-school blues are directly associated with the start of school and usually resolve a week or two after the start of school. (If you or your child has been experiencing these symptoms for a while or you fear it may be depression, it is recommended that you talk to a professional counselor.)
So, how can you beat the blues?
While the lazy days of summer may be
at an end, the return to school brings new adventures to
pursue, dont let the reality of the school year
routine get you and/or your family down. A case of the back
to school blues can certainly be a challenging way to start
the new school year. As you and your children ease back into
the school year, however, the excitement of the things to
come is sure to get all of you over the blahs and feeling
ready to take on another school year. Welcome back! And hey,
before you know it the holidays will be here...
The main part of intellectual
education is not the acquisition of facts
Education is hanging around until
you've caught on. - Robert Frost