Is it Okay to Teach About Suicide?


In the early months of 2018, I went to a brunch featuring a keynote address by Ryan Leaf who gained notoriety as an excellent college football player, a first-round NFL draft pick, and, according to many, one of the biggest busts in professional football history.  Besides being fans of football, we are both alumni of Washington State University (even in Pullman at the same time, 1996-1998), and we are both recovering addicts.

In fact, he shared his story of addiction to the attendees on that Saturday morning.  How stardom, celebrity, and pressure not only propelled him into addiction, but also how it sustained him within it.  My spotlight isn’t quite so bright nationally, but in my world, it might be brighter; so, I figured our reasons to be at that brunch on that day might be more similar than different.

Although Leaf’s journey into painkillers is different than my journey into alcoholism, I wondered if any medical professionals had talked to him the way some of my doctors talked to me. They explained to me reasons why addiction often leads to death and shared the realities of the challenges of overcoming addiction.  I also wondered if the death of WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski was having a similar impact on him as it was on me.  As a recovering addict of my orientation, there are often painful reminders of how close you were to losing a passion for life.

Hilinski, a redshirt sophomore quarterback, played off-and-on for the Cougars throughout the 2017 football season for injury-prone Luke Falk.  He became a favorite of many Coug fans after he replaced a struggling Falk and led the Cougs back from a 21-point deficit to beat Boise State in overtime.  Washington State’s final game in 2017 was the Holiday Bowl, Hilinski started due to an injury to Falk, the Cougs lost that game.  A few weeks later, Tyler Hilinski died by suicide.

I survived my suicide attempt, if it can be called that.  Some of my doctors asked me if I was trying to end my life through consumption of alcohol, a few of my closest friends have expressed that they believed that I had lost the will to live, but I never consciously or willingly chose to end my life.  That’s important to note.  I wondered if Ryan Leaf felt that presumptions of suicide hovered over his journey into sobriety or if he thought there might be a greater good for his knowledge and experiences in this constantly changing world.

I follow Ryan Leaf on Twitter, as a non-practicing alcoholic, the candidness about his struggles, the joys he finds in daily activities, and his interactions with others often renews my sense of purpose.  I think its fair to say that, like many Cougs I know, Leaf proudly carries the banner of Hilinksi’s Hope with the goal of raising awareness of suicide and things we can do to prevent it.

In my own way, I do that to. I have taken my knowledge and experiences and my renewed sense for life and a deep value for time into the classroom to build learning experiences to close the achievement gap.  In my studies at the University of Kansas I gravitated toward the concept of the human economy and researched how social media impacts our self-perceptions.  As a human, I’ve dealt with the outcomes of suicide near the epicenter of the tragedy.  I talked with a young girl who understood suicide far greater than I, she cried as she plead, “I just want someone to tell me what it means, it makes no sense,” then and now, I do not know how to create a quest to help her find those answers.  I can just share stories and hope to teach what those stories mean to me.

For educators, teaching about suicide awareness and discussing suicide prevention can be a Pandora’s Box.  Some of us think that if we teach about it we are unintentionally giving information as to how to do it and somehow communicate a way that minimizes the outcome of the tragedy.  It seems that some of us barely mention it, if we mention it at all.

On the other hand, some educators risk being viewed as rogue, fringe, or unscientific if we try to weave it into our existing curriculum, take time to do it on our own, or create time and learning experiences that are not distributed by a well-known company.  Yet, many of those lessons don’t exist or the one-size fits all approach of “boxed curricula” doesn’t match the needs or realities of the students in the school that want or need the learning experiences.

In my time in teaching, I’ve encountered situations concerning suicide numerous times.  These experiences include the young girl mentioned above.  A social media post implying a loss in a passion for life. Another includes a creative writing assignment where a student used contemplation of suicide as a plot line for a story about isolation.  A fellow teacher mentioned to me that during a computer-based research activity, the educator used screen monitoring software to observe a student researching methods of suicide.  In all of these experiences, what is a highly skilled teaching professional but non-certified mental health counselor or substance abuse advocate supposed to do?

It seems that all teachers can do is be reactive. We make observations regarding student behavior, we talk to counselors and administrators about observations, give them artifacts if available, and remain optimistic that the student keeps coming to school and class.  It’s a very challenging experience.

Right now, celebrity drug overdoses and deaths are the big news. Children and teens are more easily exposed to suicide-themed applications and video games like the Blue Whale Challenge and the Momo suicide game.  Some think that depression is on the rise due to the availability of the smartphone and how it impacts meaning-making for children and teens.  Also, communication travels very quick in an interconnected society and social media can be used for manipulation, bullying, intimidation, and harassment.  It is time to explore the feasibility of being more intentional about teaching suicide awareness and prevention in school.  More importantly, it’s urgent that successful learning experiences that help children build meaning of the social and emotional constructs of their world are identified, replicated, used, and shared.

Something tells me that Ryan Leaf and I view Tyler Hilinski’s tragedy in a similar way and wonder how we might use our experience as addicts to contribute to things like Hilinski’s Hope. He might work to help others build meaning about things like suicide while they overcome addiction and I talk about it with other educators in a hope to express an urgency to create learning experiences that help students build meaning about suicide.

It could be, however, that Ryan Leaf and I are not as close on this issue as I think, maybe we simply want to spread the word on Hilinski’s Hope because we know the phrase “Go Cougs” means more, I’m okay with that.  Regardless, I know that on one of the Washington State Cougar flags given to the Hilinski family with condolences and messages of support you’ll find my signature, I bet on another, you’ll find the signature of Ryan Leaf.

Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Twitter/Facebook: @8002738255

Hilinksi’s Hope:
Twitter/Facebook: @HilinskisHope
Instagram: hilinskishope

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