About 400 eighth graders in Washington, D.C. public schools claim to have tried to kill themselves, according to a recent middle school survey reported in The Washington Post. That's 10 percent of the district's 4,000 eighth grade students. The WaPo says D.C.'s teenage suicide rate has consistently been almost twice the national average, which is around 6 percent. Administrators say this reflects the bleakness many area teens face, dealing with real world stressers while navigating public school.
From The Washington Post:
(Chancellor Kaya Henderson) and other officials said they do not take the figure at face value. It is self-reported by students who filled out the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey administered last fall by OSSE. They said they regard it more as a reflection of the despair that often pervades their world, and of an on-line culture in which stories and images of teen suicide are readily accessible.
“They’re exposed to the Internet, to Facebook. They’re exposed to so many more things than we were,” said D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley. “Things we didn’t think about until well in our adult years.”
But even allowing for the adolescent sense of drama and hyperbole, the figure is sobering.
“It’s very alarming,” Henderson said. “I think it is a generalized cry for help.
While this is a disturbing story, it's not surprising. Children, being children, don't often comprehend that the pain of youth, while real and often devastating, isn't necessarily forever. As someone who struggled with undiagnosed depression through almost all of my primary education, I survived elementary, junior high and high school by constantly telling myself that I would eventually graduate from school, grow up and leave this place. High school was not forever. But when you're a kid, time does feel slow, you feel powerless and you don't think anything will ever change.
Whenever I talk to or mentor teenagers I always emphasize that you will be an adult much longer than you were ever a child. And while for those who enjoyed their childhoods, that reality is sad and hard to accept at times, if you have a childhood marked by uncertainty and unhappiness it can be a relief to hear that end of that childhood is near. It's reassuring in a sea of frustration that things may improve with maturity and self-determination.
Kids with tough childhoods need to know that with age they will eventually gain control over their lives if they work towards that. While my issues were more about bullying and severe depression, for some of my friends it was about problems at home or growing up with lots of economic uncertainty. In most cases, growing up meant getting to move to better places where you better fit, getting to make your own choices or getting away from a troublesome parent and/or neighborhood that caused a lot of chaos in a young life. As a child, you often don't feel like you have any control over your life because ... you don't. It's largely controlled by the whims of adults who can make your everyday somewhat pleasant or nightmarish based on their level of competency.
But it's not forever. And I've honestly preferred being an adult over a childhood where the only place I felt accepted was within the walls of my parents' house. And I didn't want to spend eternity confined to the suburbs of St. Louis with a 9 p.m. curfew.
We have to give our children a future to look forward to while making them feel safer and more supported in their present.