We Are Only Human

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A Teacher's Suicide: Lessons Learned

Suicide is often seen as the tip of the iceberg.

Suicide is often seen as the tip of the iceberg. When Mr Ruelas', a Los Angelos teacher, died by suicide last week, it is acknowledged that the motives are far from clear. However some have associated Mr. Ruelas' love of teaching, his despair about the recent release of teacher performance ratings and his shame at being listed as a "less than effective" teacher compelled him to take a fatal jump. I also have the experience losing someone I love to suicide and searching for answers that can bind my anguish. My mother killed herself when I was four years old and as a child psychiatrist, mother, daughter I spent 18 years asking the impenetrable question of "Why?"

The lessons learned for those of us who lose someone to suicide is that it is usually a complex set of events, biological, cultural, conscious, unconscious motives. In ninety percent of suicides there is an underlying mental illness that exacerbates how someone responds to an immediate crisis whether it is a loss of a job, a divorce, the vicissitudes in life that can leave us bereft. In "psychological autopsies" when researchers interview friends and family, someone often has suffered from depression or bipolar disorder.

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In my capacity as a consulting psychiatrist to schools, I have worked for eighteen years with teachers. I know in a profound way how much effort so many teachers give every day in the classroom often waiting for a miracle when children are confronted with barriers to learn such as homelessness, poverty, loss and abuse. The endurance it requires to make meaningful differences in students' lives is inspiring. Teachers' urgent need to provide care, discipline and effective instruction to our students is a daunting often undervalued job. To motivate children to care about what they learn and to see a brighter future can be an all consuming task. Burnout, or the sense of feeling devalued is certainly an occupational hazard in teaching. However, we can do better than this to honor Mr. Ruelas' life.

When someone is depressed and suicidal they can often have lethal misperceptions. Their desperate misery can be fueled by the faulty logic that their problem is permanent and that ending their life is the only solution. If I had climbed next to Mr. Ruelas on the remote forest bridge, the kind of metaphorical outreach that I do with my patients in my office, I would have counseled him in the words of Galway Kinell in his poem to a suicidal friend, "Wait, Wait for now, the need for new love is faithfulness to the old." I would have asked him to look at the evidence that a bad report card can permanently derail a career or can he recognize that this is the "faulty logic" of depression. When someone is suicidal they can see themselves as a perceived burden and that they will not be missed.

The aftermath of Mr. Ruelas' death is a stark reminder that none of us are expendable. As an extension of Mr. Ruelas' love for his students, I want each of them to get the message that depression is a treatable illness. We have life sustaining support to help those in their darkest hours find another way.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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