Breaking the silence, shame, and stigma of death by suicide

Whenever I bring up the subject of suicide prevention, I am reminded of how society used to approach AIDS. In the early days of that epidemic, HIV positive patients were shunned, and left to face discrimination in housing, employment, and health care. Only after countless deaths and a national campaign of thousands of brave persons living with AIDS and their allies, were policies, laws, funding, and public perception changed. Although a cure for AIDS has yet to be identified, effective treatments were found once the silence, shame, and stigma of the disease were broken.

Death by suicide holds a comparable kind of taboo today. Survey data show that every 13.7 minutes someone in the United States commits suicide, the nation’s tenth leading cause of death, and the third leading cause of death among young people.

The medical researcher Irving Selikoff is credited with saying that “statistics are people with the tears wiped away.” The truth in those words was painfully brought home when a student at our school, Codman Academy Charter Public School, took his own life last year? Those who loved this ninth-grader and those who came to know him at school and play were left with a lifetime of unanswered questions. Without support and help, those questions can implode into self-blame and paralyzing guilt, pointing to the need for comprehensive support services for those who are bereaved by a suicide.

As tempting as it may be to cite a single reason or to assign blame, in reality suicide is the result of complex, multiple causes, often including complicated mental illness.

At Codman Academy Charter Public School, which is located inside the doors of its partner, the Codman Square Health Center, we develop each student as a whole person, promoting not only rigorous academic achievement, but also health and emotional wellness. Every ninth grader has participates in a weekly, single-gender, small group “Talking Circle” with our social worker. After enrollment by lottery, every student and parent/guardian participates in an intake interview to learn more about the student’s background and aspirations. Even with this full support of his family, professional supportive services, and a supportive school community, this young man’s life ended tragically.

Because this suicide was on school grounds, there was a reflexive suspicion of bullying or foul play and the school, including all persons and computers, became the center of a thorough criminal investigation by the Boston Police Department. Such an investigation is standard procedure following a suicide death, and it contributes to the stigma, silence, and shame experienced by so many who “survive” a suicide. After completion of the probe and no finding of evidence, the investigation was closed, and so began the long process of mourning the loss of a promising young life, and the agonizing question of what can be done to prevent further suicide deaths.

In the aftermath, the school worked closely with Codman Square Health Center as well as trauma professionals from the Boston Public Schools, Boston Public Health Commission, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and Riverside Trauma Center. Additional mental health professionals were on site in the weeks that followed as well as when we passed through the recent anniversary date this spring.

This past school year, we invited the Riverside Center to independently screen all students for risk of suicide and to train students to identify risk signs in their peers. We openly value and promote a culture of asking for help and speaking up and we have been committed to growing and learning from the painful loss of our beloved student.

In 2010, there were 38, 364 suicide deaths and nearly 1 million suicide attempts. Ten years before, that, the former Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. David Satcher, said that suicide is the leading preventable cause of death in the US; still, suicide rates have dropped only marginally in the past few decades. And while Massachusetts spends more, per capita, than any state on suicide prevention, we will not reduce these startling numbers unless we resist assigning blame and instead talk openly about mental illness and its treatment and cure. And we need to continue public education of warning signs and how to seek help.

We can’t bring our beloved student back, but we can let his life inspire us to speak out that suicide is not a reflection of shame. Suicide prevention is a community-wide responsibility that begins with awareness and compassion and moves to advocacy for increased mental health services, comprehensive public policy to support prevention services, and funding for rigorous medical research into its causes and effective treatments.

Meg Campbell is Executive Director and co-founder of Codman Academy Charter Public School. She also serves on the Boston School Committee.