Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 2004 / 6 Tishrei, 5765

David Chartrand

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Money alone won't break the deadly silence on suicide | If it were possible for governments to change attitudes as easily as they spend money, we might know more about why so many young people commit suicide.

But a gain is a gain, and any day now President Bush is expected is sign legislation authorizing $82 million in grants over the next three years to develop programs to prevent suicide among the nation's young.

Unspoken in the euphoria among mental health experts is the fact that many millions of public and private dollars have already been spent over the years studying youth suicide and designing programs to stop it. And still young people keep dying, at a rate of 4,000 to 5,000 a year.

We already know how to reduce the number of dead teenagers and college students. You train the living. You teach young people not to remain silent when a friend shares his suicidal thoughts. You convince them to squeal, to tell teachers, parents, counselors, neighbors, doctors and ministers that a friend is in danger.

The question is how much money it will take to convince schools, churches, synagogues, community leaders and parents to ditch their hang-ups and talk openly about why kids commit suicide. How many more times will we bury kids like Garrett Lee Smith, the son of Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, sponsor of the federal funding bill. Garrett Smith killed himself last September in his college apartment, one day before his 22nd birthday. As if Congress need any more warnings, as the Smith legislation was debated this summer Luke Tiahrt, 16-year-old son of Kansas Congressman Todd Tiahrt, committed suicide.

More money helps, of course, but what really hurts is silence. The nation is littered with schools, public and private, that have ignored the warnings and still have no formal suicide prevention program for students, teachers, counselors and staff. There are many origins for this reckless tempting of fate, but it often begins with school boards and administrators who have spent too much time reading scare literature about suicide "contagion" — the wildly misinterpreted theory that talking to kids about suicide will tempt some to try it. This is pure buncombe but it provides a safe alibi for grownups who worry more about lawsuits than mentally ill students.

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Schools, of course, will eventually pay for this abdication of responsibility as courts hold educators responsible for failing to take steps to teach students and staff how to prevent suicide. To that end, the significance of the Garret Lee Smith federal legislation lies not in the money being spent but in the message being sent — namely, that ignorance will not be an available plea for those who should have known better.

As for churches and spiritual leaders, it's a good thing we're running out of space and time today. Otherwise, we'd have to offend countless Bible literalists who claim to know for a fact how G-d will turn his back on those who take their lives. These people have done more damage than they can imagine.

Most tragic of all are the silent parents who refuse to hear the word "suicide" or "depression" alongside their child's name. If you want to know what a verbal mugging feels like, ask any school counselor what happened the last time he tried to notify a parent that a son or daughter might be at risk for suicide. Sad days and long nights are in store for moms and dads who succumb to the notion that only a parent knows what is best for a mentally ill child.

Suicide frightens us because it threatens us. And it threatens us because we construe it as failure — a failure of school, family or of religion. And who wants to talk about failure? Not me. I say we talk about opportunities.

Every suicide of a young person should be treated as an opportunity to talk openly about a disease that kills a dozen kids every day, not counting the ones we don't know about and the ones who botch their own death but resolve to try again later. Each Garret Lee Smith and Luke Tiahrt is a chance to find out how we failed to save the last victim and how we might rescue the next one before it's too late. I have no idea how many federal grants it will take to figure this out, but I'll bet $82 million won't come close.

JWR contributor David Chartrand is a First Place Award winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and has been honored by the Society for his humor writing. Enjoy his colums? You'll love his book, author of "A View from the Heartland: Everyday Life in America" (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR).

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09/07/04: These are troubled times — I think

© 2004, David Chartrand