Teen suicide is a topic that many struggle to address. We mourn the loss of these young people, but have to tread carefully in memorializing them. Experts say that the kind of mass grief exercises which appeal to teenagers can actually make the act more attractive for someone on the edge. And so we dance, carefully, on the edges, unsure what to say, what to do, how to grieve and, most importantly, how to prevent teen suicide.
Perhaps that's why the words of Eric Bartlett, whose 14-year-old son Connor killed himself Sept. 26, resonated so profoundly when we published them last weekend. In an open letter to the newspaper, Bartlett shared his perspective on his son's death, advocating for education and vigilance.
"There is a tendency to avoid the topic of suicide because of concern about glamorizing it or planting an idea," he wrote. "But experts all say that you need education and you need to directly ask a person 'are you thinking of hurting yourself?' because this is the best way to get them to talk about it and the statistics clearly show that the thoughts are often there anyway."
Bartlett shared statistics about teen suicide, as well as risk factors. His son didn't fit most of them and did not display the "telltale" signs that could have helped prevent his death, his father told the Daily News.
"There is almost always some warning or signs but not with him; we just didn’t even have a chance to save him," he wrote.
He added that his son had some social and relationship issues similar to those faced by most teens, but did not display the types of behaviors that set off alarms. His main known risk factor was having lost a close friend to suicide several months earlier. Suicides often happen in clusters, which meant that anyone who knew these young boys is now at risk, he said.
"We must be vigilant, we must know the signs, and we must know what to do," he wrote.
His son loved people, and treated them well, and he loved life. And since his passing, his father has struggled with what he would do differently, if he had the chance. He would not have put academic pressure or pushed his son to participate in organized sports. He wished his son, and other high school students, would get more sleep and that school started later than 7 a.m. And he wished he would have spent more time on his son's phones.
Bartlett's words, poignant and articulate, are a wake-up call for parents everywhere. He urged parents to keep guns and pharmaceuticals out of the home, removing some of the most common means of suicide.
Most teens announced their intention, though their words may not reach adults until too late. As adults we need to listen, not just to our own children but to other teens.
We need to do what we can to make sure they are heard, and helped.