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How to Save a Life

Countermeasures to Prevent Youth Suicide

A recent rash of teen suicides in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania has left school officials and parents scrambling to understand this sudden epidemic (four students in a week) and to hastily arrange public forums to help deal with the tragedies.

Despite some “hearsay” claims to the contrary, those charged with investigating the deaths stress that there is no evidence that bullying or harassment played a role. But such rumors may be explained by the fact that many times such loss is, in fact, instigated by mistreatment at the hands of classmates. Such was the case for fourteen year-old Brandon Bitner, a Mount Pleasant Mills, PA ninth-grader who, in the early morning hours of November 5, 2010 walked more than six miles in the pre-dawn cold and darkness to a major thoroughfare where he stepped in front of a fast moving tractor trailer.

Brandon’s tragic death reminds young people everywhere of the debilitating humiliation bullying begets, an outcome so insufferable that many victims simply give up.

Like many suicide victims, Brandon left a note. Unlike many, his was more a mission statement, not only detailing the abuse he suffered at the hands of his classmates, but pointing to a path for progress in beating this most insidious of twin tragedies.

Brandon’s was no small contribution, as the U.S. Department of Education reports that bullying at school is a pervasive problem that affects millions every year.

While bullying behavior has become more widely discussed and legislated against, it remains a salient source of anxiety and depression among young people. Warning signs include:

• Feelings of sadness or hopelessness

• Declining school performance

• Loss of pleasure/interest in social and sports activities

Sleeping too little or too much

• Changes in weight or appetite

• Nervousness, agitation or irritability

Substance abuse

Perhaps not surprising, compared to their peers, kids who are bullied are up to nine times more likely to consider suicide, according to studies conducted at Yale University.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control that list suicide as the third leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds, accounting for the loss of 4,320 young people in 2007, for example.

Which brings us back to the four teens who took their lives this month in Luzerne County.

Regardless of the etiology, all adults must answer the call of awareness and education. Why? Because they are best suited to identify signs of depression and suicidal behavior, thus preventing similar deaths from happening.

On his blog, as published in Psychology Today, Harvard University psychiatrist John Sharp offers some help: “It is one thing to worry, feel hopeless, anxious and temporarily unable to carry on with life. Reaching out for help is what makes the critical difference.”

In turn, reaching out to people who need help, people like Brandon Bitner, also makes a critical difference … and is a great reminder of how to save a life.

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