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Good-bye, M.B.

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Good-bye, M.B… School has started once again, yet you are not here with us. We’ve re-convened after a summer of travel and relaxation, learning and camps, celebrations, … and mourning your death. The other kids come in with their backpacks over their shoulders and I think of you, the one who didn’t make it back…

Your easy grin, your brilliant curiosity, your penchant for deep questions and conversation, your friends who have carried on so admirably without you… I have found thoughts of each of these wandering in from the back of my mind at odd moments during this first week of school. Back when you were a little 3rd grader, talking as fast as you could think but faster than I could listen, I never imagined this moment.

I look at my little 3rd graders today and can’t bear to imagine it with any of them.

This is the painful part of teaching, when the ‘real world’ yanks our classroom doors open and sweeps in without warning to snatch away the future, when all our positive efforts seem to have been for naught, when learning comes from Life’s hard lessons.

Back in my undergraduate days, I remember my EdPsych professor posing a terrible question in class one day: “What will you do when one of your students dies?” She said if we taught for enough years, it would probably happen at some point. Of course, in our youthful eager idealism, it never seemed possible back then. We were going to be teachers to change the world, to make a difference, not to struggle with these agonizing questions.

But here are her questions again, battling in my mind. How do we support our students when something like this happens? How do we balance giving ourselves time and space to mourn yet still be strong and supportive for our students? What is a teacher’s role in the aftermath of tragedy?

Nowadays, particularly after 9-11, schools have plans in place for dealing with the variety of tragic (or even just challenging) situations that can befall us. And those plans do help – a lot.

But the pain is still there, and teachers are human, too.

And perhaps that’s part of what we can give our students at a time like this – letting them see a glimpse of our humanity, a peek into our “real-person-ness.” Maybe it’s like those moments when we see a student at the grocery store and he is blown away by the fact that we have lives outside of the school building. “You buy groceries, too?” Of course! And we also cry, too…

Life goes on, and learning goes on, and we must go on, too.

***** ***** *****

I actually wrote the above portion of today’s post a year ago – and have struggled ever since with whether or not to post it, whether or not to broach the broader not-yet-mentioned topic, and how to deftly, accurately, and sensitively talk about it…

September is Suicide Prevention month, and today, September 10th, is Suicide Prevention Day.

Some people tend to assume that suicide occurs less frequently among this group of bright kids who seem to have everything going for them. Other people tend to assume that it occurs more often among the gifted because the existential nature of a gifted person (including existential depression) can lend itself to some dark thinking.

But what does the research say about suicide and the gifted? It’s a mixed bag – and at this point in time the bag isn’t very full yet, so that’s a complicated and difficult question to answer (1, 2). There is some research (1, 2, 3) with – among other things – a conclusion that gifted students may be at more risk for suicide (the third link cites other studies that appear to have reached that conclusion). Yet one study (1) deduces there just isn’t enough accurate data available on this topic yet to draw precise conclusions. Some studies show that it occurs at about the same rate (not a significantly more or less frequent rate) as it does in average, same-aged peers (1, 2, 3). Finally, chapter 7 of "The Social and Emotional Lives of Gifted Kids" by Tracy Cross does a great job of covering the overall topic and its inconclusive research base.

Perhaps the most oft-cited authority on suicide and the gifted, though, is a research summary in "The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children: What Do We Know?" by Maureen Neihart, Sally M. Reis, Nancy M. Robinson, Sidney M. Moon. These two quotations come from that text:

"Although it is a popular notion that gifted children are at risk for higher rates of depression and suicide than their average, no empirical data supports this belief, except for students who are creatively gifted in the visual arts and writing (see Neihart & Olenchak, this volume). Nor, however, is there good evidence that rates of depression and suicide are significantly lower among populations of gifted children."

“It is not at all clear whether suicide is more or less common in gifted adolescents than other adolescents – the statistics simply are not available – although it is easy to develop rationales why the rates should be higher or lower.”

But even if the statistics don’t indicate it being any more or less of a problem for the gifted, it’s still a tragedy in each individual case - and in all cases of all ages and types of people. I wish that I remembered my students M.B. and R.V. for bigger reasons than how they died.

In part because of M.B.’s death last summer, a service-oriented student organization at our high school conducted a week-long series of suicide awareness events this past spring. One of my students, a friend of M.B.’s, was among the handful of kids who put in countless hours over many weeks to organize and run the awareness week. His dedication to the task as well as his assistance for his fellow students was impressively thorough. But having so much on his plate during that time, something had to give, and that something was his until-that-point 4.0 GPA. At first disappointed in himself for “failing” to maintain his perfect grades, he soon reached the most important conclusion: “Yeah, I got a B in Math… But I saved two lives.” I couldn’t have been more proud :o)

So… today’s post is in part my way of finally having the guts to put those above thoughts out there – and also about linking you up with what the somewhat-limited research says about suicide among the gifted. Most importantly, though, I want to leave you with some valuable resources to access should you want or need to learn the signs of someone considering suicide, should you be concerned that someone in your life is contemplating suicide, or should you – heaven forbid – need some tips for how to handle the aftermath.

Suicide Among Gifted Adolescents: How to Prevent It

An Overview: Understanding and Assessing Suicide in the Gifted

National Suicide Hotline 1-800-SUICIDE

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK
or NSPL at MySpace

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

National Association for Mental Illness

Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Feel free to add your own resource ideas as well :o)

5 Comments

Although I have been teaching for almost 10 years and am myself gifted, I am only now taking courses for teaching the gifted. Sure, I've had a few of them in my classes in the past, but this year I have one whole class of them and several others sprinkled through the rest of my day, and I am forced to review my way of perceiving them and teaching them. I never really thought much about the higher suicide rate with this group since I've never had to deal with it personally - and my ignorance would certainly not be a good excuse for not recognizing the potential for this occuring. I currently have a student who's parent committed suicide over the summer, and he is getting outside therapy to deal with that loss. Perhaps with a bit of research, I can learn to be even more sensitive to his needs, bouy his spirits, and encourage him to continue to be successful. He's such a sad young man, but he is so very intelligent and eager to learn. I thank you for these great resources and drawing my attention to such an important issue!

In high school, towards the end of 9th grade, a highly gifted friend took his life at just 14 years of age. He was an amazing person and had a huge impact on me (not only because of the way he died). He was forgotten in our community and it was brushed aside. As a future teacher, I only hope that I can recognize the signs and help students work through problems that were too much for my friend and countless others.

Hey Tamara,

Will you grant permission to print your postings so I can hand it out to the teachers who have gifted students in their classes? One of my new duties as the Gt Liaison at school is to pass along articles or bits of wisdon to my staff. It is great to see /read your thoughts, and I think my staff could benefit from your wisdom.

On another note - I think Jen Den and I hope to go to Jen B's July 3rd wedding - Can you make it to Nebraska?

Hugs - Janeen fom Calif.

I am returning Education Graduate student, and spent over a year working in a local school system with K-12 with everything from regular classrooms to Special Ed. I was a gifted student myself (130 IQ), but was plagued by suicide and what I now know to be BiPolar disorder.
My family was oblivious to who I really was, and even now (20 years later) they refuse to even believe that there was a problem. They actually complain about the person that I have become after seeking medical help for myself.
BiPolar in teens and kids is a bit different than in adults. In kids the biggest, most obvious symptom, is paranoia. Looking back I realized that none of my teachers realized that I needed help because I was the quiet one. They were busy helping all of the loud ones.
So, I guess my contribution is just to point out that you should not forget the quiet ones. Find out if they have ANY friends. (I was a senior in HS before I had a friend in school.)

I am late to this, but I wanted to thank you for your article. I took a class once on the social/emotional lives of gifted and we used the Neihart book you mention. It was very frustrating because all it did was reinforce that there really is not enough research to come to any conclusion (scientifically speaking). Yet the way her writings are structured makes it so people rush to judgment saying "See? Research shows there is no greater chance of suicide in gifted." Many of us know instinctively that this is not true. But just knowing that and a nickel will get you about a tablespoon of coffee.

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