No high school student should ever be in a coffin instead of in a cap and gown.
"1 Ohio school, 4 bullied teens dead by own hand" was the recent headline of an Associated Press article on a cluster of high school student suicides occurring just over a two year period in the "pleasant beachfront community" of Mentor, Ohio.
The profiles are disturbing: Sladjana Vidovic, after hanging herself outside of her bedroom window, was buried in the dress she planned to wear to prom. Eric Mohat was a theatrical class clown who shot himself in the head two weeks before a school choir trip to Hawaii. Eric's friend Meredith Rezak killed herself in the same manner a mere three weeks later. Jennifer Eyring, a student so troubled with problems at school that she needed Pepto-Bismol to calm her stomach, died from an overdose on her mother's antidepressants. And behind them all, faceless, insidious bullies dumping books, shoving, and spewing hateful names like "slut", "faggot", and "homo".
According to news reports, there seems to be an epidemic of bullying in the country, fueling a spate of suicides. But the contrast is stark in that Cleveland suburb: Mentor was voted one of the "100 Best Places to Live" this year by CNN and Money Magazine, and Mentor High School is seemingly steeped in a "culture of mean" with apparently lethal consequences.
The death of any teenager is a tragic event. The shock, confusion, and grief that follow can contribute to constructive growth or can result in debilitating resentment and an unresolved search for blame. There are two fundamental errors in thinking that can emerge from this situation: The first is that Mentor High School is a uniquely harsh and intolerant hotbed of hate, and the second is that bullying is the fundamental contributor to suicide.
I graduated from Mentor High School a little over 10 years ago. I told that to someone recently and they recoiled with a gasp: "Was it a really bad place to go to school?" I can answer that with a quick and emphatic no, it was not.
Mentor High had impactful teachers, advanced and varied educational courses, a range of successful athletics (not that I was ever involved with given my near total lack of sports abilities), and excellent arts programs (that I was involved with despite my near total lack of musical abilities). It's a very large school - about 3,000 students for three grades - so there was always one clique or another to fit into.
Of course, I don't want to sound like I look back through a gauzy sentimental lens. As I mentioned in a graduation speech, getting through it wasn't all that easy. Personally, I was happy in some ways and troubled in others. Kids could be quite cruel: there were frequent fights and harsh bullying (and like most people, I'd be an outright liar if I didn't admit that I had lobbed some name-calling and gossip, too). Like John Ciardi once said: "You don't have to suffer to be a poet; adolescence is enough suffering for anyone."
However, I believe that Mentor High School and its students are more similar to than different from most other high schools and their students across the country. Maybe something has changed drastically in the past ten years (I don't know any of the people or families from the AP story), but I highly doubt it.
I was a senior at Mentor High when the shootings at Columbine High School happened on the other side of the country. That horrific incident was one of a number of school shootings highly publicized at the time. In Mentor, we were frightened and vigilant: we were far from naïve enough to believe that such an incident couldn't happen there (in fact, a school shooting did later take place 30 minutes down the road at Case Western Reserve University, which I had just graduated from less than a year before the incident). Very quickly, media reports suggested that school bullying and the "cult of the athlete" at Columbine had provoked the shooting. In reality, this was far from the case as author Dave Cullen highlighted in his exceptional book Columbine. By most accounts, Eric Harris was a sadistically grandiose psychopath who attracted into his orbit the aggressive and unstable Dylan Klebold.
Bullying is a terrible thing and appropriate steps should be taken to stop it from occurring and to fully punish those responsible. I also know that there is a strong and destructive tide of religious, political, and homophobic intolerance in this country that must be confronted. At the same time, bullying is unfortunately pervasive. Look deep enough into anyone's history and you'll find they've almost certainly been bullied in one way or another at some point in their lives, and you'll also find that they've probably done some bullying themselves. Adolescents in particular can be cruel, aggressive, and destructive, but chalking up bullying as the fundamental contributor to suicide is a dangerously facile explanation.
The United States suicide rate is just over 11 suicides per 100,000 people each year, with adolescents at high risk. But although the suicide rate in this country has increased in recent years and adolescent, the increase comes more from middle-aged white men and women than adolescents. There are a number of known factors which increase suicide risk.
Suicides often occur in clusters. There is an increased risk in those with a family history of suicide or in proximity to a recent suicide. For this reason, the media has historically been reluctant to report on cases of suicide. Meredith Rezak talked of suicide shortly after her friend Eric shot himself and she committed suicide in the same method only three weeks later. A year after Meredith's death, her older brother also shot and killed himself. Her second brother also died of a drug overdose not long after.
Firearms in the household are also a major risk factor. Males are almost 30% more likely than females to use them as lethal means, and adolescents are also much more likely to use firearms as seen in two of the four Ohio cases.
Social isolation is a significant contributor as are family or personal history of mental illness, physical/sexual abuse, and substance use. Lack of social support exacerbates almost every form of physical and mental illness. Two of the students had actually withdrawn from high school to enroll in online programs a short-time before their deaths, and as another student noted, one of the victims struggled because "she didn't fit in" and had serious issues at home that were unrelated to school.
Perhaps even more than depression, the presence of emotional dysregulation is highly associated with suicide attempts and deaths. Emotion dysregulation refers to problems with intense emotional experiencing, difficulties thinking clearly in emotional situations, interpersonal desperation, and impulsive behaviors. In extreme instances, these problems are often diagnostically labeled as Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and even Attention Deficit Disorder. Individuals will often describe these experiences as having emotions which are overwhelming and which spiral out of control. When they feel bad, they feel really bad, and even when they feel good they can feel really good.
Emotionally dysregulated people can be highly entertaining, humorous, class clowns with a flair for the dramatic. In these strong emotional states, they have trouble focusing or thinking rationally. When feeling bad, they can't ever remember feeling good and imagine they may never feel good again. They have difficulty focusing, remembering, and sometimes struggle to keep a clear topic when having a conversation or telling a story.
Emotion dysregulation often shows up as clingy behaviors or a desperate need for social and romantic relationships. A frequently expressed idea is the feeling that a good relationship will solve all of their problems, and rejection or interpersonal conflicts can lead to intense emotional distress. These individuals have trouble forming a coherent identity: they aren't sure who they are as people, what they want out of life, or how they fit in with others. They may be drawn to extreme groups with strong belief systems or they might idealize charismatic others. Finally, they tend to make hasty, impulsive, and poor decisions.
Some of these problems may seem developmentally normal in adolescents. They can almost all seem moody, indecisive, and impulsive at times. However, strongly dysregulated adolescents do have more problems than the typical storminess of many teens. The problem is enduring rather than transient and can contribute to substance use, disordered eating, self-injury (cutting oneself, burning), and suicide attempts. These individuals may be more prevalent targets of bullying which capitalizes on and exacerbates their apparent vulnerabilities.
No adolescent should struggle with bullying, emotional distress, and suicidality. Vigilant school systems implementing consequences for bullying may help. On an individual level, therapy and/or medication may help students alleviate emotional distress and gain more empowered footing to better cope with the unfortunate, but inevitable, problem of cruelty. For many students and families, these interventions may come all too tragically late. I don't feel like I have the answers to fix all those problems, and I don't think anybody does, but it's hard to come up with useful solutions without a better understanding of the problem.
Mentor High School is not a uniquely dangerous or vicious place to go school. There are troubled and troublesome teens in every school. Yes, this cluster of suicides happened there and not anywhere else, but don't naively assume that it has not nor could not just as easily have happened anywhere else. And while bullying may play a significant role in adolescent suicide, it's not the only factor, and it's far from the most significant one. Promote tolerance, but also be prepared for facing intolerance.
Jared DeFife, Ph.D.
The National Institute of Health offers information and help for understanding suicide and suicide prevention. They offer a toll-free number, available 24 hours a day, every day: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a service available to anyone. You may call for yourself or for someone you care about. All calls are confidential.