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Wednesday, October 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Sarah Bain: We must talk with kids about suicide, then listen

By Sarah Bain For The Spokesman-Review

I tried to kill myself in high school.

But I failed. Several times.

But the real story isn’t how I failed at killing myself and then screamed at my mother that I hated my life as I was being dragged off to the emergency room on a Super Bowl Sunday (thus rendering many other people’s lives ruined that day).

The real story is about the hidden nature of my attempts and how it quickly became evident that being silent about my suicidal tendencies was safer than being vocal, would be less embarrassing to my family and that in my repeated cries for help, I was simply being selfish and dramatic.

I wasn’t.

The seeds for my suicidal thoughts were planted when I was 5 years old and a group of women at our church told me that when my father died, he went to heaven to be with God because he was such a good person. “God needed him in heaven,” they said.

Now I lay me down to sleep/ I pray the Lord my soul to keep

Please let me die before I wake/ If so I promise I’ll be great.

This was my prayer I prayed every night from soon after my father’s death into my teenage years, convinced that if I could be good enough, God would take me too. Each morning when I woke up, my beating heart was evidence that I still wasn’t good enough.

We have to talk about suicide with our kids. We have to listen to their stories.

At 12, I tried to fit in, but other kids had fathers.

At 15, I tried to fit in, but other kids called me a bastard child.

At 16, I tried to fit in, but I never felt good enough to fit in anywhere.

So I thought about death. A lot. I thought about killing myself on most days in high school.

Death isn’t a subject people like to talk about. And suicide, not at all. In fact, you won’t read about suicide in the paper because most newspapers and television stations don’t cover suicide stories – at least not about children under 18.

As a teenager, my grief was killing me, but no one allowed me to grieve. I had no one to talk to about these thoughts. In fact, to this day, I’m not even sure what my own three siblings know about my suicide attempts. I’ve never talked to them about it, and I don’t know if my mom ever did. We’ve never discussed it as a family.

We have to allow our youth to talk about subjects that we find difficult. And we have to ask them hard questions. When I’ve been worried about a few teenagers, I’ve asked them directly: Are you thinking about killing yourself? The research supports asking the question. Each time, they said no. And I believed them because I believe our youth when they talk to me. I have a feeling that’s why they keep coming back to visit.

In Spokane, a student at North Central High School died by suicide this year. It was only five weeks into the school year. A second Spokane Public Schools student also killed herself this year. Last year two students from Spokane Public Schools killed themselves. The year before that: four. In 2016, there were eight suicides countywide among those up to 19 years old.

Last spring Netflix released a series called “13 Reasons Why” that examined the suicide of a high school student named Hannah. It spawned controversies about whether the series would encourage more suicides. I watched most of it with my 16-year-old daughter, who now knows three people in Spokane who have died by suicide. When I watched the last episode with her, I wasn’t much thinking about my own attempts, but something inside of me collapsed in those final minutes. The shame of my own silent suicide attempts came rushing back. The shame of the silence of it all suddenly felt suffocating again.

I could have been Hannah. There was the boy in high school whom I liked who didn’t once glance my way. There was the poem I read that people laughed at. There was the rumor that I was easy. There was the rumor that I was a prude. There was the rumor.

There will always be a rumor.

That’s why we have to listen to our youth and be their safe places.

Honestly, I think the thing that saved me in high school was that I wrote. I wrote bad poetry, I wrote a lot of stories about death, I wrote about the disappearance of a girl’s father and his return on a ship a few years later. That father’s return gave me hope.

I wrote to save my life.

And there were a few people who did believe in me even though I never shared my darkest thoughts with them.

That’s the thing about staying alive.

If you have someone who believes in you, one person who loves you unconditionally, I think that glimmer of hope shines brighter. It’s not always foolproof. There are people, I know, who have killed themselves surrounded by people who loved them and tried to help them. It’s not formulaic. And there is no easy answer to preventing suicide, especially when mental illness is involved.

I do know that it helps to be able to tell your story. We need more people to tell kids that they matter. We need to tell each other that we matter. We need to practice listening to our children more intentionally.

And then we need to be prepared to be OK with what they share.

Sarah Bain is a freelance writer and the director of strategic partnerships for Spokane Public Library. She is also a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for abused and neglected children. The opinions expressed here are her own.

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