OPED: A 'culture of caring' for hurting teens

York County coroner

In recent months, the York County Coroner’s office has seen a disturbing increase in the number of teen suicides here in our community. And while we do everything in our power to maintain and respect the family members’ privacy in these tragic situations, we also believe it is important to acknowledge the increase and revisit the gravity of what that increase may mean.

Billy Sechrist, of York City, holds a photo collage of his daughter, Shania, at his home Friday, May 27, 2016. Shania Sechrist, who was 15 and a student at William Penn Senior High School, took her own life after she came home from school Wednesday. Amanda J. Cain photo

Since 2010, the number of suicides in young people 25 and under in York County has been between 4 and 10 individuals who choose to end their young lives each year. The number of those who were still of high school age at the time of their death has been 0 to 3 individuals in any of those years.

In just over 6 months in 2016, our community has already seen 6 suicides of high school-aged teenagers (one of the 6 was from Maryland, but died in York County). This is double the number of teen suicides we have seen in our recent past — and, according to my staff who have been working in the coroner’s office for almost two decades now — the highest number of teen suicides they have ever seen. And, sadly, 2016 is only half over.

Father: Bullying cut daughter's life short

Why have so many young people decided to end their lives while their greatest potential remains unrealized? Why are they unable to see that their lives truly matter — to someone? Are things that different than they were 30-40 years ago? And what can be done to reverse this disturbing trend?

There are often multiple answers to these questions. The teen brain is still growing, still developing and very vulnerable at times. A teen is almost an adult, obviously, and there is that constant struggle of trying to break free from the parents while desperately seeking acceptance from their peers, especially their classmates at school.

A parent can shower their teen with all the affection and positive acclamation in the world, but the negativity, bullying and sheer meanness some face in their school environment often far outweighs the positive reinforcement they receive at home. And when they arrive home, the attacks from their peers continue via their phone, computer and social media — often even into the late night hours. Some teens are afraid to tell their parents of what’s happening for fear their parents will take their phone or computer away. And to many teens, their phone or computer is their lifeline.

When I was growing up — even 40 years ago — many of us were forced to share a phone line with our neighbors, known as a “party line”.  You would try not to be on that phone for very long because you didn’t want to hear the neighbor complain to your parents about how you hogged the phone line. You also shared the phone with everyone in your house, so conversations were brief. Everyone was generally polite to one another, always thinking of how best to accommodate others, so that we could all get along. And we certainly didn’t have the phone right next to us all night long. When we left school for the day, generally, any negativity we had experienced stayed there, too.

Suicide Prevention PSA

Just as when I was a teen, today’s youth can be involved in many after-school activities, not just sports or jobs. Many choose to volunteer at their local hospitals or nursing homes. Still others are involved in after-school clubs, debate teams, scouting and church youth groups. When I was a York County Vo-Tech high school teacher in the 90s, the happiest teens were those whose lives were not defined by any one activity or person, enabling them to succeed and enjoy many activities so that if something didn’t quite work out or if a relationship failed, they had other activities and friends that gave them support.

But for some teens to find their niche, sometimes they need a concerned and committed adult to show them the way, to be their advocate and their mentor. Perhaps they come from a single-parent home and their parent is working long hours and can’t provide that mentoring. Sometimes, that guidance needs to be from someone other than a parent — perhaps a guidance counselor, teacher, youth leader or adviser.

I certainly believe many such opportunities exist for teens to be involved and feel that they fit in somewhere, but I also believe that more and more teens don’t know how to find those opportunities and don’t realize their inherent worth as a human being on this earth. I would encourage the adults of our county who are able, to involve themselves in some way with mentoring a teen, such as with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Crispus Attucks or as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer.

BLOG: Dear Struggling Teen

In the summer of 2014, the York County Suicide Prevention Coalition (YCSPC) and the York County Coroner’s Office were awarded a grant from the York County Community Foundation to specifically address the problem of teen depression and suicide in our community. Cindy Richard of YCSPC and some area guidance counselors and school administrators worked hard during the 2014-2015 school year to bring the Aevidum program into York County Schools. While we realize it can’t be directly attributed to the implementation of Aevidum, we were pleased to see that there were no teen suicides in York County in 2015.

To date, the following school districts have implemented the program in some way:  Dover, Red Lion, Southeastern, Southern, Southwestern, Hanover, Central and Dallastown. The Aevidum Clubs emphasize the creation of a “culture of caring” in the school environment, where students are taught how to look out for each other, how to be sensitive to what’s going on in their classmate’s lives, how to recognize signs of depression and suicidal ideation and how to get help for those who exhibit those signs.

Teens who may not feel as if they fit in with a culture of sports or academics often find a welcoming atmosphere in an Aevidum Club, where they have each other’s backs. We realize Aevidum is not the complete answer, but we do believe the peer-generated clubs are able to help recreate the empathetic culture that is so needed in our schools — and our communities at large. We would encourage any school districts who have not yet implemented Aevidum to take a second look at the program. Call Cindy Richard at (717) 227-0048 for more information.

York County schools train staff in suicide prevention

Finally, in recent weeks our office staff have also been quite disturbed to see young people and adults posting photos, videos and scenarios involving individuals who have overdosed or died in our community (often minutes after the event), many with belittling or negative comments. We realize this is quite common in the world of social media now, but just because it is common, what makes that acceptable? Why is that OK to do? And many of those posts are coming from adults, with comments that are just as bad sometimes. And why do others think those posts are OK to share?

In that same vein, parents should be monitoring what their teen is posting as well as the posts their teen is receiving. If the post doesn’t reflect a culture of caring, but instead breeds gossip, falsehoods or hate, take it down, unfriend that person or block them entirely.

When it comes to basic manners in social media, somewhere our society has gone terribly wrong. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a requirement to take a basic course in ethical posting before someone could acquire a social media account? We realize in this land of free speech, that one’s right to do so is just that — a right.

But what we can’t understand is why one feels their right to post such information supersedes the right of the family or that person to privacy? Many times the immediate next of kin may not know of the death or overdose yet, and someone has posted it, causing that family member to find out via social media. That makes the death notification process for the coroners’ staff so much more difficult. And be warned, if you post such things, don’t look for a future position in healthcare, law enforcement or as a deputy coroner. If you post such things, you obviously cannot empathize with our hurting families.

In closing, it’s important to reiterate the signs to look for in a teen who may be suffering from depression or contemplating suicide. Familiarize yourself with these signs:

  • Withdrawing from friends and family 
  • Troubled romantic relationship 
  • Difficulty getting along with others 
  • Academic struggles 
  • Writing about or drawing pictures focused on death 
  • Sleep disturbances  
  • Changed eating habits 
  • History of previous suicide attempts 
  • Giving away treasured things 
  • Substance abuse

Don’t hesitate to call Crisis Intervention at (800) 673-2496 or (717) 851-5320, the York Co. Suicide Prevention Coalition (number below) or the Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-TALK (8255) if needed.

Call the York Coroner’s office at (717) 840-7617 or the York County Suicide Prevention Coalition at (717) 227-0048 for additional information or for free suicide prevention materials.

While fellow students, teachers and administrators work together to create a culture of caring in the schools, it is important that each adult in our community strive to nurture that culture of caring with each other, and, especially, with our teens. It is my hope that as that culture of caring permeates our community, a culture of curing can begin to heal our hurting teens.