February 22, 2012 - When Dave Opalewski asked a group of Oxford Middle School eighth-graders what message they would like him to give their parents, a boy stood up and said, "Would you ask our parents to spend more time with us?"
"That about broke my heart," said Opalewski, who hosted the Feb. 13 community forum on suicide prevention held at the Oxford High School Fine Arts Center.
"Don't believe the lie that they don't want to spend time with you," he told the audience. "They do want to spend time with you. They do want to talk to you. They do want to sit down with you at dinner time without the cell phones, without the TV on, without the texting going on. And I told them that goes for them, too."
Approximately 100 to 150 people attended this forum, which was held as a result of OMS eighth-grader Shane Hrischuk's suicide in late January.
Opalewski is the president of the Saginaw-based Grief Recovery, Inc. and the author of numerous books and articles on suicide prevention and related topics. An instructor at Central Michigan University, Opalewski spent 33 years in K-12 education, during which he experienced the deaths of 28 students and staff members.
The first thing Opalewski told the audience was "please don't waste a lot of energy trying to figure out why" Hrischuk killed himself.
"The question you need to ask as a community is why would young people in a community like this – and it's obvious there's a lot of caring people here – still have a perception that they can't go to anybody when they're in crisis?" he said.
What suicide is really about
"Suicide is about ending pain more than it is about death," Opalewski said. "When you get to the point where you want to take your life, you have so much pain in here, that's all you can concentrate on."
He advised the crowd that if they ever find cuts that run vertically ("up and down") anywhere on their children's bodies to immediately seek professional help.
They cut themselves that way because it's very painful, so it takes their mind off the immense pain they feel inside, Opalewski explained.
The pain people in severe suicidal crisis feel isn't just mental or emotional; it actually manifests itself physically.
Opalewski said it can be stomach pain, back pain or even a headache. That type of pain is an indication that professional help needs to be sought out.
Opalewski said it's important for the parents, other loved ones and friends of suicide victims to remember "it's not your fault."
"They don't mean to hurt you," he said. "They want to stop their pain."
Who's at risk?
Opalewski believes that suicide is a subject that must be addressed.
"This is an issue you need to talk about with your children," he said.
"Whenever you think you're not vulnerable, you become vulnerable," Opalewski told the audience. "There's not one of us that isn't vulnerable."
Since January 1, there have been 10 adolescent suicides in Michigan. Opalewski said "every one of them" was a top student.
"Suicides happen in good families, too," he said.
Opalewski presented statistics that indicated 14 teens die by suicide everyday in the United States.
"Experts say take that (figure) and multiply it by 4.5 and that is very close to the actual number," he said.
The reason for this is many suicides are officially classified as accidents because some think it helps spare the family's feelings or there are life insurance issues involved.
"That goes on a lot," Opalewski said.
Talking about suicide is not going to give ideas to teens as some people might fear, he told the crowd.
"You're not going to put ideas (in their heads) that aren't already there," Opalewski said.
Suicide's actually a "common thought" for 62 percent of U.S. adolescents and "it is absolutely ballooning in the middle school."
Opalewski said among Michigan's grade 6-12 population, seventh-grade girls are the Number One attempters of suicide, while eighth-grade boys top the list when it comes to completers of the act.
"Middle school's not too early (to talk about suicide)," he said. "I think middle school is too late. That's just my opinion."
According to the Michigan Association of Suicidology, within a typical classroom of 24 students, three of them – one boy and two girls – have made a suicide attempt in the last year.
What to look for
Recognizing kids who may be in suicidal crisis is not an exact science, but there are signs to look for.
These include a poor self-image, pulling away from friends and becoming withdrawn, going from being extroverted to introverted, excessive use of alcohol and other drugs, and changes in habits of appearance (i.e. they once took very good care of themselves and now, they've let themselves go).
Opalewski noted people should not automatically label the Goth kids as at-risk because they're usually just making a statement. "They're not suicidal because they've got black nail polish and black clothes," he said.
Other signs include giving away prized possessions, poor communication with family and friends, feelings of hopelessness and depression, diminishing academic performance and losing interest in something they were once really passionate about.
"It's usually a combination of a lot of these signs," Opalewski said.
The biggest warning sign is a history of prior suicide attempts.
"Do you know the second attempt is easier than the first attempt and it tends to be more serious?" Opalewski said.
He urged parents that if they have a child who's attempted suicide before and they're acting strange, make sure to talk to them.
"Err on the side of safety," Opalewski said.
He noted the sign that's most often missed is when a person who's been suffering from depression for months, all of the sudden seems just fine.
"The pressure's off. The decision (to go through with suicide) was made," he said. "Be wary of quick recoveries. They don't happen."
What to do?
If a parent suspects their child may be contemplating suicide, Opalewski said the best thing to do is talk to him or her and ask four questions – 1) Are you thinking about suicide? 2) If yes, what's going on? 3) Where does it hurt? 4) What can we do to help?
Confronting them about it "will not put them over the edge," he noted.
To assess how serious the situation is, Opalewski said parents must find out how specific the suicide plan is.
"The more specifics they give you about their plan, the more serious they are because the longer they've thought about it," he said.
Determine how lethal the plan is and if they've acquired the means to carry out the act or how available the means are.
Determine the proximity to those means.
If there are guns in the house, Opalewski advised to remove them because kids are "very impulsive," especially those in middle school.
When dealing with children in suicidal crisis, Opalewski urged parents to be good listeners, be non-judgmental, don't act shocked and don't dare them to do it (i.e. using reverse psychology).
"Reverse psychology's a bad idea," he said. "How would you feel if they took your advice? . . . Do you think that gives (them) hope?"
Instead, it reinforces their perception that nobody cares about them.
The best thing a parent can do is listen and accept every feeling their child has and expresses.
"Don't tell them how to feel," he said. "That's terrible counseling. You don't have to agree with how they feel, but don't tell them how to feel. They feel what they feel."
Opalewski warned that if a kid is "really acting strange, don't leave them alone."
"I would take them to the emergency room."
What not to say
Telling kids suicide is a "selfish act" or "cowardice" or "the easy way out" is not a good idea.
"They don't need that. They need hope," Opalewski said. "You need to ask them why do you want to die, so you can tell them why they want to live."
But he also warned against spouting a bunch of cliches such as "you have your whole life ahead of you" or "these are the best years of your life."
Saying these things to a depressed person does not give them hope, it only makes them feel worse. "We've got to be so careful with our words," he said.
It's society, not the kids
The absolute wrong question to ask whenever a young person dies by suicide is "what's wrong with today's kids?"
"It's not what's wrong with today's kids, ladies and gentlemen, it's what's wrong with our society," Opalewski said. "Why is it that young people see that as the only way out?
"It's not what's wrong with them. Let's not have that attitude. It's what's wrong with our society."
According to Opalewski, a large part of the problem is a complete reversal of the major influences in young people's lives. Years ago, the Number One influence was the family, followed by school, church, peers and the media.
Today, he said the media is the Number One influence, followed by peers, school, family and church.
USA Today conducted a study three years ago in which it asked high school and middle school students in all 50 states to define a successful man in the 21st century. They were given a list of 30 choices to circle.
The top five answers were – ability to make money; the type of car he drives; the job he holds or how good he is at it; the clubs he belongs to; and the size and style of his house.
"Kids have lost a sense of what wealth is," Opalewski said. "They think it's money in the bank. You know what wealth is? The quality of our relationships with our loved ones. That would be my first definition of wealth. What is the quality of your relationships with your siblings, with your parents, with your children, with your friends, your close friends?"
Who does Opalewski say is responsible for this? The media.
"The number one major influence for our kids today is the media," he told the crowd. "I'm not blaming you. I'm blaming the media. Now, we all have some blame, I know. But the big part is our media."
Stress and pressure
Prior to the forum, Opalewski surveyed OMS eighth-graders about their stress level. He asked how many of them had felt stressed out in the last month. A total of 171 students responded yes, while 135 said no.
He said the good news is that's probably the lowest number of yeses he's received compared to other school districts. "I don't think you want to accept that, though," he said. "I hope you don't want to accept that."
According to Opalewski's survey, the three things that are stressing out OMS eighth-graders the most are – 1) the social life at school with their peers; 2) homework; 3) sports.
Opalewski found the third thing particularly interesting.
"The kids wrote sports in," he said. "Forty-four eighth-graders said sports was stressing them out. Isn't that something? And that wasn't even a choice on my survey."
Opalewski said there's too much emphasis by some parents on winning, losing and keeping score, and not enough on having fun and letting kids be kids.
"Why do our kids have to be the best at everything?" he asked the crowd. "Let'em be kids. My gosh, what are we doing to our kids? Let them enjoy baseball, softball – they don't have to be the best at everything."
Opalewski said some parents should behave like "monks in the corner" when attending their children's sporting events.
"We're there. We show them that we care. Don't embarrass them. Stop yelling at the umpires."
With regard to the homework situation at OMS, a parent in the audience asked Opalewski if he thought middle school students should have three hours worth of homework every night. "It does seem pretty excessive," this parent said.
Opalewski's response was "What you teach kids by giving them three hours of homework a night is how to hate school."
"Why do our kids have to be valedictorians? Get a couple of B's and enjoy life."
Opalewski told the crowd that kids today need more "unstructured play time."
"We want to structure everything for our children," he said.
After running from sports practice to sports practice, scout meetings, music lessons, etc., Opalewski asked, "When does little Johnny get time to be a kid?"
"Our kids need unstructured play time. They do. They need time just to be kids."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.