Suicide in Lee Hirsch's "Bully"

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[featured in the American Association of Suicidology's student newsletter, June 2012] Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully is a heartbreaking and necessary film that illustrates the impact childhood bullying has on individuals, families, and communities. Hirsch follows the personal stories of three different teenagers, revealing their painful daily struggles with mental and physical abuse from their peers. These images are both disheartening and provocative, inspiring profound empathy for these characters and frustration toward a system that seems unwilling to help their plight.

Hirsch was inspired by his own childhood experiences being bullied, and used his film to give kids and parents a voice to talk about their experiences. “Bullying is something that your generation and my generation of folks didn't think about, didn't talk about,” he told NPR’s Robert Siegel. “It was wrapped with shame, it was wrapped with silence.”

That statement, coincidentally, could also apply to suicide, a subject that plays a large role in Hirsch’s narrative. The film opens with the tragic story of 17-year-old Tyler Long’s 2009 suicide. Hirsch interviews Long’s parents, who talk about their son’s childhood and his longtime struggle with bullying—the catalyst, they believe, that led to his untimely death. “We know why Tyler did what he did,” his father says. “It was the mental abuse and not-so-physical abuse that Tyler endured.” Long’s suicide is a prominent storyline throughout the film, along with the suicide of 11-year-old Ty Smalley, whose death inspired Stand For The Silent—a program through which Ty’s parents educate students about the effects of bullying and what they can do to help end the silent epidemic.

These cultural connections between suicide and bullying are not uncommon. Bullying has received a lot of attention recently in relation to adolescent suicide, especially in the case of LGBT youth. Bully relies heavily on this cause-and-effect relationship to bolster its anti-bullying agenda. The documentary’s message seems to be: bullying is bad because it can have fatal repercussions. While this may be true, Hirsch neglects to address other factors that may have been present in the two suicides he references—namely depression and Asperger’s syndrome—thereby oversimplifying suicide and the variety of circumstances that can lead to self-inflicted death.

This perspective is a bit cursory and a whole lot potentially hazardous. The film repeatedly implies that suicide was the single reason anyone “took notice” of the bullying issue, and that it requires something as extreme as a suicide to affect change. These presumptions could lead Hirsch’s intended adolescent audience to believe that suicide is the direct and ultimate result of bullying, a way to get noticed, and a way to solve the problem.

Various scholarly studies have established a link between bullying and adolescent suicide, but not without acknowledging that bullying first inspires anxiety, depression, and aggression amongst its victims. Hirsch’s film shows this, but neglects to say it—a technique that may communicate the reality to adults but would likely slip under a teenager’s radar. The most telling moment might be when Alex, a 13-year-old boy who is relentlessly abused by his peers, talks to his mother about his classmates. She asks if it makes him feel good when they punch or kick or stab him.

“Well, I don’t know,” he responds. “I’m starting to think I don’t feel anything anymore.”

A statement like that should pave the way for a discussion about depression, but the film avoids the topic, despite many obvious indications.

Bullying is clearly a serious and under-represented issue that deserves attention and respect. Hirsch’s intentions are admirable, and the film will likely educate a variety of people about the severity of this issue, with which adolescent suicide is legitimately bound. Bullying was likely one of many factors in these suicides, and turning a tragedy into an educational tool is not a bad impulse—one often used within suicide prevention—but doing so without taking into account all of the factors is disadvantageous and, at worst, harmful. On the upside, two of the characters’ stories end on uplifting conclusions, leaving the audience with some hope. Overall, the film carries an optimistic message: kids should rally together against bullying, stand up for themselves, and support each other. Hopefully this message speaks the loudest and inspires the positive change this film can achieve.

What It Means To Be An Archie

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[featured in the American Association of Suicidology Student Newsletter, December 2011] The recently released mockumentary, Archie’s Final Project, opens with an upside-down home-recorded image of a sun-drenched suburban ranch house. Enter Archie, also upside-down, holding the opening titles on placards that are right side up. This scene sets the pace for the whole film: the world may be chaotic, but the message is clear, so listen.

The 2009 film, originally titled My Suicide, follows a teenage Archibald Williams as he documents his unpredictable relationship with teen suicide. The journey begins when he declares to his film class that he plans to kill himself on camera for his final project. After his bold statement chaos ensues and the typical suicide intervention protocol follows suit—removal from school, mandatory counseling, and eventually prescription drugs. Archie’s public cry-for-help opens the conversation about suicide among his peers and his unfolding documentary records the variety of ways in which suicide affects every teenager individually.

All of this is presented through Archie’s lens—both figuratively and literally. Much of the film is Archie’s footage and the erratic style mimics the random ebb and flow of adolescence. The adult figures are portrayed as insensitive and dense—a guidance counselor unconvincingly recites a standard intervention strategy to Archie and hands him a lollypop. In contrast, the kids are emotional, impulsive, and convinced the authority figures have little clue as to the scope of the problem. The dichotomy between these two groups is visceral, and in many cases, true. While the film mocks some tried and true suicide prevention efforts—including an interview clip of the late Edwin Shneidman reciting the famous “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem”—it does so with a mission. The filmmakers have clearly done their research and what results is a message illuminating the tough reality that a monumental chasm often separates adolescence and everything that comes after.

In essence, this film is about connection. We see Archie transform and start to heal as he connects with people through his project—his peers, a depressed love interest, a frank psychologist who shares Archie’s fondness for film history, and a long-time artistic hero. He claims a few times throughout the film that the camera is his only friend, but the camera is the vehicle that hooks him up to the outside world; the project that threatened to end his life actually ends up saving it.

AFP has had a slow but steady influence. The film has spent the past couple years independently touring the festival circuit and picking up awards all over the world. After a recent U.S. tour AMC picked the film for distribution, which led to the December 6th DVD release, but the film’s greatest presence has been online. AFP has infiltrated suicide prevention within social media venues. The revolution began with a Miami teenager who posted a video on the film’s facebook page declaring he was an “Archie.” A slew of similar videos followed and marked the beginning of the IamAnArchie campaign, in which teenagers are encouraged to join the effort and share their own experiences and feelings through videos, photos, and testimonials posted on social websites like Facebook and Twitter.

Similar social media efforts like the Trevor Project and Postsecret are part of a new wave of virtual youth suicide prevention focused on connecting teenagers not only with support services, but also with other teenagers. What is unique to these programs is that kids are able to commiserate with other kids around the world experiencing similar feelings and struggles. The internet allows them to communicate on their own terms, and the social venues provide an infrastructure mediated by the larger organizations, linking kids to a bigger movement outside of themselves. Being an “Archie” means being part of a reciprocal message—putting yourself out there and realizing you are not alone.

Survivor D24

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I currently belong to a variety of email listserves relating to suicide studies and prevention: American Association of Suicidology, Youth Suicide Prevention Project Oregon, National Institute of Mental Health, National Action Alliance, American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, Suicide Prevention Resource Center, etc. One of these organizations recently invited me to participate in something called the "Suicide Prevention Stakeholder Survey"—the kind of study that asks you to rank things in order of importance, then rank the reasoning behind your rankings. A mind-numbing series of 1 – 10 scales. This particular survey focused on a short list of aspirational research goals under consideration for the final national suicide prevention research agenda: affordable healthcare, effective treatment, stigma, counseling, access to lethal means, biological factors, etc. My rankings were a bit out-of-whack with the rest of the group (I ranked "eliminating stigma" first;  it ultimately ranked ninth), which I expected. Despite my admirable research efforts I still mostly understand suicide from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old: a fine-tuned combination of curiosity, confusion, and disbelief.

I participate in these surveys mostly because I am fascinated with anyone and everyone whose worlds collide with suicide is some way. The second part of the survey is the "Discussion Round" during which panels separated by affiliation (for example: psychologist, advocate, survivor) are permitted to discuss the rankings via some chat-board format. This allows me to scrutinize other participant's experiences and feedback. We are highly encouraged, of course, to remain anonymous in our postings, and comments are listed under one's given identification. Mine is Survivor D24.

The other players seemed shy at first, so I started the round with a general question about people's opinions on the ranking of stigma. I got a handful of thoughtful replies (not that I expected rash criticism, but imprudence is common to such a venue) followed by a couple of educated and obviously professional replies from a Survivor D22 concerning the dangers of stigma among the suicidal.

Of course, I am curious. Who is this Survivor D22?

Six days after my post SD22 started an expository thread loaded with psych-jargon about the newest research into the causes of suicide. Very informative and cutting edge, even spotted with a term I didn't recognize: idiozimia, defined by SD22 as "the disconnect with self" and followed by an extensive quote about the condition from a very recent (2010) book about suicide prevention.

It's not often I come across an unfamiliar term in suicidology, so I googled idiozimia and found it only within several publications by the same psychologist who wrote said book—sold as a "neuropsychological approach" to suicide and prevention. Idiozimia's credentials are ambiguous, though, especially considering the writer openly coined another term in the book's introduction: aftoktognosis, a lovechild from the Greek words for "suicide" and "knowledge." The writer describes this aftoktognosis as the exploration into everything suicide, a journey toward the unthinkable. I suppose if one considers  aftoktognosis a condition, I am afflicted. I am curious and I could have spent my morning reading the whole thing on Google Books, but I ordered it from the library instead.

SD22 is either a huge fan of this psychologist's work or particularly horrible at remaining anonymous. Perhaps I should quote some of my writing on the Stakeholder Survey Discussion Board. My estimation is that this would not go over well. On the spectrum of self-interest my writing is generously more introspective, but I may, at the least, possess slightly more tact than Survivor D22 in my survey etiquette.

In all fairness, I am probably the only person googling idiozimia and then aftoktognosis and then trying to come up with my own Greek hybrid of "suicide" and "obsession" and arriving at aftoktideolipsia.

Grief by Numbers.

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Sample Death Notification Statement for Students: It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that one of our students, ________, has taken [his/her] own life. All of us want you to know that we are here to help you in any way we can.

A suicide death presents us with many questions that we may not be able to answer right away. Rumors may begin to circulate, and we ask that you not spread rumors you may hear. We’ll do our best to give you accurate information as it becomes known to us.

Suicide is a very complicated act. It is usually caused by a mental disorder such as depression, which can prevent a person from thinking clearly about his or her problems and how to solve them. Sometimes these disorders are not identified or noticed; in other cases, a person with a disorder will show obvious symptoms or signs. One thing is certain: there are treatments that can help. Suicide should never, ever be an option.

Each of us will react to ________’s death in our own way, and we need to be respectful of each other. Feeling sad is a normal response to any loss. Some of you may not have known ________ very well and may not be as affected, while others may experience a great deal of sadness. Some of you may find you’re having difficulty concentrating on your schoolwork, and others may find that diving into your work is a good distraction.

We have counselors available to help our school community deal with this sad loss and to enable us to understand more about suicide. If you’d like to talk to a counselor, just let your teachers know.

Please remember that we are all here for you.

(From: AFSP & SPRA: After a Suicide | A Toolkit for Schools 2011)

*

Children coping with suicide are like human palimpsest: fragile, impressionable, and rewritten. In the wake of adolescent suicide every peer becomes a potential statistic, and adults scramble to deal with the aftermath while straddling the thin line between respectful condolence and unintentional glorification. In this chaos the victim loses all personhood and becomes one or both of the following: a symbol and a tool.

There are no nationally implemented guidelines for schools dealing with the aftermath of a suicide, a period referred to in the world of suicidology as postvention. Schools often have something called a crisis-response plan-of-action, which supplies at least a framework for the immediate disorder. These plans usually operate on an individual school-by-school level and flex to meet the needs of the community or, more often, the victim’s family. In an effort to help guide schools in crisis and universalize school-based postvention, in 2011 the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) along with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) collaborated on a user-friendly guideline called: After Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools, which details step-by-step instructions for dealing with post-suicide pandemonium.[1]

After reading through this document I concluded there is no correct, simple, or entirely fail-safe way for schools to deal with a student’s suicide. Trying to prepare for such capricious conditions is like packing a suitcase for intergalactic travel. Under these circumstances the adults are likely as confused as the teenagers; the only difference is that adults are slightly more aware of the immediate and foreseeable impact. Documents like this come from a place of fear; the greatest concern after an adolescent suicide is the very real threat of contagion, which the toolkit defines simply as: the process by which one suicide death may contribute to another. Since teenagers are highly impressionable by nature, the objective of these guidelines is to lasso their collective shock into a place where their every move and emotion can be monitored. Grief by numbers:

One: Number of ways in which schools should approach a student’s death. “It is very important that schools strive to treat all deaths in the same way. Having one approach for memorializing a student who died of cancer or in a car accident and a different approach for a student who died by suicide reinforces stigma and may be deeply and unfairly painful to the student’s family and friends.”

Four: Number of times the above instruction appears in the document.

Zero: Number of assemblies schools should hold to address the matter. “Schools are strongly advised to explain [to parents] that this is not an effective approach to suicide prevention and may in fact even be risky, because students who are suffering from depression or other mental health issues may hear the messaging very differently from the way it is intended, and may even become more likely to act on their suicidal thoughts.”

Between one and five: Percentage of suicide deaths annually attributed to contagion effects.

At least five or six (but no more than fifteen): Number of administrators, counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and/or school resource officers chosen to serve on the Crisis Response Team responsible for “effectively managing the situation.”

Three: Number of “Sample Death Notification Statements” to choose from:

Option 1: When the death has been ruled a suicide;

Option 2: When the cause of death is unconfirmed;

Option 3: When the family has requested that the cause of death not be disclosed.

Five: The suggested number of days during which memorialization is acceptable. “Since the emptiness of the deceased student’s chair can be unsettling and evocative, after approximately five days (or after the funeral), seat assignments may be re-arranged to create a new environment. Teachers should explain in advance that the intention is to strike a balance between compassionately honoring the student who has died while at the same time returning the focus back to the classroom curriculum.”

Innumerable: Number of times I felt the toolkit implied directly to me: Life Goes On.

The benefits of having encountered suicide as a thirteen-year-old include the ability to read documents such as the above toolkit with the eyes of both an adult and a child. As an adult, I see the great care and effort exerted in creating these step-by-step instructions whose main goal is to help children deal with the messiness of their grief and prevent them from imitating their peers' actions. I see an opportunity to educate kids on the realities of mental illness. I see the underlying social responsibility woven through in an attempt to de-stigmatize suicide and lessen its shameful implications.

But as a child I see Brian turning from a human into a lesson plan. I see his desk being filled, his locker being cleaned out, his peers moving on and his memory being completely erased.


[1] Much of this suicide-specific toolkit borrowed from the rather comprehensive parent model, Postvention Standards Manual issued in 2003 by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which illustrates general postvention for all sudden child/adolescent deaths.

From Dusk Till Dawn

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[featured in the American Association of Suicidology's June 2011 Newsletter] On a sunny Saturday in New York, more than two thousand people gathered in Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza waiting to commence the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention’s annual Out of the Darkness Overnight walk. The crowd was suited up in pale blue personalized tee-shirts, each memorializing the person—and the reason—that brought them there that day. It was hard not to stop and read the back of each shirt, facing constant reminders of the cause that drew them all together.

"Tonight we bring a different energy to New York City, the energy to end suicide," AFSP Executive Director Robert Gebbia told the enthusiastic crowd before sending them on their all night journey. "We are walking tonight because we won’t allow suicide to be kept in secrecy."

AFSP has been hosting the Over-night for seven consecutive years. The primary walk moves to different major cities across America each year, while numerous local chapters hold smaller community walks over the course of the summer. The walk benefits research and education programs to prevent suicide, increase advocacy, and assist survivors of suicide loss.

The Overnight raises awareness in the cities that host the event. As the event unfolded, New Yorkers were obliged to engage with AFSP’s presence; Cadman Plaza was decorated with signs educating the public about the realities of suicide statistics and prevention. Walkers, too, served as emblems of their cause, often stopping along the eighteen mile route to explain the Overnight’s objective to curious residents who crossed their paths. The trail wove around Manhattan into the night, cutting through the city with the marvel of an unexpected parade and stirring affection and enthusiasm all along its path.

Many of the Overnight’s participants and volunteers have walked multiple times and find in the event an experience to reconnect with a national community that has bonded over this cause. Their combined energy and positivity seemed to prevail over physical exhaustion as the procession moved closer to dawn. While the first walkers finished as early as midnight, the majority arrived back at Cadman Plaza closer to four o’clock in the morning, when participants began to reconvene in front of the towering Korean War Monument to watch the closing ceremonies. Personalized luminaries lined the monument’s steps, illuminating dim beginnings of the sunrise.

Gebbia stepped back up to the podium and thanked the sleepy walkers for their dedication and support. "Because of you, we will never forget those we have lost," he said, as the night faded into a new morning.

The Net [an excerpt].

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Eleven men died during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge—an impressive figure considering the bridge industry usually estimated one death for every million dollars spent on building costs (Golden Gate = 35 million). In order to help lower this morbid statistic, bridge engineer Joseph Strauss installed a safety net that hung under the bridge and inched outward as the structure came to life. Although similar nets had previously been proposed by labor unions, Strauss was the first engineer to invest in what was likely a necessary PR strategy for such a highly publicized and widely disputed endeavor. San Franciscans were already skeptical about the bridge’s future safety issues, considering the extreme winds blowing in from the Pacific and, of course, the high incidence of earthquakes in the bay area. Strauss didn’t want a high death toll during construction to further taint the bridge’s already precarious reputation or shroud the project in bad omens, so he dropped $125,000 on an industrial trapeze web that dangled under the bridge’s skeleton like a belly, waiting to catch the inevitably falling men. Strauss believed his net would warm the bridge workers up, ease some of their fears and push them to work a little faster. Bridgemen lived like sailors—at the mercy of the elements, always on the brink of being swallowed into the current and swept away. Part of working a bridge was fully embracing the immediacy of self-preservation. Every gust of wind and foolish glance downward brought reminders of their own mortality. The mesh trap offered some solace, ultimately saving a total of nineteen lives over the course of four years. These nineteen men went on to form an informal group called the “Halfway to Hell Club,” on the premise that they had all cheated death. Another less fortunate group included ten of the bridge’s eleven casualties[1], all of whom fell at once along with a five-ton platform whose scaffolding had given way a mere three months before the bridge’s completion. The platform and the men hit the net and rested there for an instant (two seconds? four?) before the immense weight tore the web from the bridge’s undercarriage, dropping its contents into the bay. A photo taken that day from the shore depicts the net half-detached from the bridge, its far end already submerged in the water. The sheer gauze-like apparatus resembles a chute of liquid pouring from a huge pitcher. Behind it, several indecipherable black dots fall to their destiny.

On May 27, 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opened to the public. Eighteen thousand people showed up to be the first pedestrians to cross Strauss’s architectural beast. On opening day the safety net still hung below the structure, then only catching deliberate and accidental debris: trash, hats, purses, cameras. Two young boys climbed down the bridge’s beams and crawled into the net, likely acting half out of mischief and half out of sheer amazement at the experience of hovering over the immense and endless water. They may have been the last to utilize the life-saving device, which was removed sometime between the bridge’s opening ceremony and August 8th of that same year, when a bargeman named Harold Wobber walked across the bridge with a friend he had just met on the bus ride there. Midway over the bay Wobber took off his coat, threw it at his new friend and said, “This is where I get off.” And then he jumped.


[1] The other casualty was a worker named Kermit Moore, who was unable to utilize the safety net. A pin had come loose from a traveling crane sending the machine awry; the device’s leg trapped Moore against a girder and decapitated him. He was actually the Golden Gate’s first victim.

The weight.

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The first memory I have of suicide happened sitting cross-legged on the cool grass in my backyard with two girls from Racebrook Elementary School. We were ten or so, arranged in a circle, palms growing damp from the spring dirt as they stretched behind us supporting the weight of our underdeveloped bodies. Jen, my closer friend, had brought Debbie—a large-nosed twig of a girl with a slight learning disability whose family lived in an overgrown home with about two dozen cats. I disliked Debbie because her unselfconscious confidence seemed disproportionate to her rank as the most widely mocked of our classmates. She was the kind of girl who said things like, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and meant it. I did not envy her assurance. She may have been sincere, but her didactic tone sounded as rehearsed as an after-school-special, and I pitied her naïveté. I was the only one of the group whose father wasn’t dead. Jen and Debbie shared this bond and I tried to weasel my way in by interjecting stories of my father’s perpetual absence, the other family he had conveniently overlooked while in bed with my mother, every one of my birthdays he missed—but his transgressions fell limp in comparison to a father loved and then lost, not to negligence, but to death. Their shared loss isolated them into an exclusive pocket of grief and silenced even my desperate need to be accepted into that fold.

Jen’s father had died of cancer when we were in the second grade. News of his death had somehow passed through a series of distorted channels and came out in an unrecognizable shape like the way things do at the end of a game of Telephone. One morning Jen was absent from school because her cat got hit by a car. Later that morning the car became a school bus, and by the afternoon everyone was whispering about how Jen had actually witnessed the bus flattening her childhood pet like a sugar cookie. It wasn’t until later that week when Jen returned to school that we learned her cat was still alive in all its catness and it was actually her father that had died in the less startling but more traumatic thralls of lung cancer. Jen’s mother quickly replaced her lost husband with a man named Larry who always wore soiled white crew neck t-shirts and often drank cans of Budweiser from a foldout lawn chair inside their garage. Jen kept an 8x10 black-and-white framed photo of her father on her nightstand. I think it may have been his high school senior portrait. The picture always made me sad. His young gaze wandered off into the distance of a future filled with possibility.

I knew the patriarch in Debbie’s overgrown home was a stepfather who had replaced a dead father, but it wasn’t until that day on the lawn that I learned her original father had shot himself in the head in his home office when she was four or five years old. She claimed with her usual assurance that he had killed himself because of her learning disability. Jen consoled her with something like, “of course he didn’t,” but I couldn’t find any words to say that made any sense.

Debbie remained steadfast. “If I wasn’t born stupid he wouldn’t have done it.” She tore two handfuls of grass from the ground by her knees and threw one at each of us, an otherwise lighthearted gesture that became retaliatory and seemed to suggest it was the end of the discussion. I said nothing and sat only with an image of a father I had never seen, slumped over his desk like an old stuffed animal loved until the point of limpness and left haphazardly on a park bench.

I’ll never know where Debbie got the idea that her father brought his life to an end because of her learning disability. Maybe her mother spit those cruel words at her in a desperate fit of grief. Maybe she had once overheard her parents arguing about it behind a closed door and that memory wedged its way into an explanation. It doesn’t really matter. It seemed to suit Debbie to believe it, and sometimes even the harshest answers are better than no answers at all.