Sunday Reflections: TRIGGER WARNING – This Post is About Suicide and Why We Shouldn’t Joke About It
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS POST IS ABOUT SUICIDE. I COMPLETELY UNDERSTAND IF YOU CAN’T READ IT.
On December 31st of this year, my best friend from high school got online and posted on Facebook: “Happy New Year everyone, have a great year.” A mere twelve hours later his new wife – they had just gotten married four months earlier – posted that my friend had taken his own life. Nine months later we are all still grieving. What did we miss, we wonder? Why didn’t we know, we wonder? Where were the signs?
The truth is, this is the 5th person in five years I know that has died in this way.
One of them was a teen that came into my library several times a week. A teen I knew. I teen I had nurtured and loved.
In the summer of 2015 I had decided that I was going to take my own life. It seemed the only way to end the pain I was feeling. It was a thought that had taken hold in my brain that I couldn’t seem to let go of.
I have struggled with these thoughts on and off for the last year and a half. It turns out that I have a health condition that needed seriously attended to – extreme hypothyroidism – and one of the symptoms can be depression, anxiety and panic attacks. I can not tell you how much it sucks to feel and think this way. I have had to sit down and have hard conversations with my doctors, my family, and my children.
If I had followed through with the thoughts that had taken hold of me last summer, my daughter’s foray into her teenage years would have always been marked by the fact that her mother had taken her own life right before she turned 13. Thankfully, that’s not a burden she has to bear. She was lucky, many others are not.
I work with teenagers in a library. Recently we have had a problem with a lot of suicide talk – and joking. GKY they tell each other: Go Kill Yourself. They joke about drinking bleach. We had to tell them that they couldn’t print off pictures of bottles of bleach and make them into buttons with our button makers. Not here, not at the library. We talked about suicide and why it wasn’t a joking matter. One day a teen told me in all seriousness that he really did want to die. He was hurting.
IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS CONSIDERING SUICIDE, PLEASE CALL
THE NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE
Here are some facts about teens and suicide:
Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among young people ages 15 – 24
Although girls think about and attempt suicide more frequently, boys are more likely to succeed because they use more deadly means such as a gun or jumping off of a bridge. Teenage boys die 4x as often as girls from suicide.
It is believed that there are 25 attempts for every completed teen suicide. That means for every teen suicide that is successful, there are another 25 teens who attempt but do not succeed.
Earlier this week, a YA author posted a picture of his newest book cover with a disturbing line that could definitely be read as a joke about suicide. The book cover was gorgeous, the suicide joke was disturbing. I thought in that moment about how much of my last year has been about dealing with suicide. Being in the mire and the muck of depression and suicide, being surrounded by it in every corner of your life, having to talk to teens about it, having to sit with teens as they mourn a friend, mourning your own friend – there is nothing witty or funny or amusing or irreverent about suicide.
When a tragedy happens, the jokes always come. I remember hearing the first Challenger joke, the first 9/11 joke, and we always ask, is it too soon? The truth is that suicide jokes are always too soon. We never know who around us is dealing with this issue. Maybe they are wrestling with their own suicidal thoughts, trying to make it through another day and hope that the thoughts will somehow go away. Maybe they are trying to hold the hand of a friend or family member who is trying to just hang on. Maybe they are mourning the loss of a loved one, wrestling with the doubt and the guilt and the fear and the anger and the emptiness. For someone around you, it is always too soon. And the truth is, you don’t know. You just don’t know.
As someone who works for and with teens, I have a responsibility to know and understand them, their lives, the issues that they are facing and struggling with. Being a teenager is hard. You are a child and yet not really. You are trying to figure out who you are and what you believe and your place in the world. The teenage years are the time when mental illness is most likely to rear its ugly head. Or questions about gender identity and sexuality (which are other high depression and suicide related factors). The teenage years are glorious, but they are also scary and dangerous and complicated. We owe it to our teens to understand the issues they are facing and be responsible in how we talk to and about those issues.
And maybe we just owe each other a little bit of grace, the grace that reminds us that people around us are struggling with these issues and we don’t know who those people are. I’m not saying don’t talk about suicide, because I think we should. We should talk about and destigmatize mental illness and all the things that go with that. We should talk about suicide because it is real and it happens and people are struggling with it. We should talk about it so that people know they aren’t alone.
But joke about it as a marketing tool? No, let’s not do that. Because somewhere a teen might be listening and they might hear the wrong thing and that, my friends, would be a tragedy. We’ve had enough tragedy this year. I’ve had enough tragedy this year.
Teens are listening. What are you going to say to them?
(PS – Because I mentioned my health struggles, I want you to know that I’m doing fairly well these days. I’m seeing a doctor and we’re addressing the issues.)
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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