My son Alex, an avid fan of the Game Theorist YouTube channel, last week sent me a remarkably compelling video Losing the Battle. It is the Game Theorist himself offering a tribute to his friend and video editor. I’ve attached it to this post and I hope you’ll watch it. If you don’t talk a lot to young people you may not get why this is such a powerful film, but it is truly one of the finest pieces on the subject of losing a friend to suicide that I’ve ever seen. It’s a little long at twelve minutes, but worth the watch as this young adult has a lot to say, especially his focus on how we treat those who are different. It made me want to go back and republish my favorite Double Take column written with Sam Schwartz back in March 2010. I included it in my Dear Dr. Wes books under the title Every Day Suicide Prevention. Though the column was written about teen suicide and the Game Theorist’s friend was a young adult, I think they fit together perfectly and the column is worth reading again in context of his video. For those who don’t know, Double Take was a newspaper column cowritten by a high school senior and me. I opened the column that week after several suicides had occurred locally. I should also note that I cite the novel Thirteen Reasons Why years before it became a controversial Netflix series, which not incidentally, I discussed and reviewed here. This is a topic that will be with us always, sadly, and the Game Theorist’s heartfelt comments remind us of it’s importance. First the column:
Dr. Wes: While suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens (ranking behind accidents and murder), it remains thankfully rare. About 1,500 teens are known to commit suicide in a given year in the United States. Each incident asks us to reexamine our communities and ourselves to consider why it happens at all.
Though we’ve shared them before, I worry that lists of warning signs actually limit our ability to help those in distress. Lists ironically yield both false-positives and false security at the same time, offering no substitute for the real and crucial connections we need to make with one another. Lists are easy. Understanding is not. Lists also make the families and friends of suicide victims feel guilty, believing they “should have seen the signs,” when that’s rarely true.
I have a better idea. One we can each practice every day without a list. Let’s consider anyone as having a potential for self-harm, given the right set of circumstances and stressors, with teens being especially vulnerable to loneliness, alienation, and self-destructive thinking. Only then can we see that the best response is to value each other every day; reach out kindly; consider how we impact the lives around us; take seriously our individual power to harm and help.
In his young adult novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher addresses this issue quite poignantly. It reminds us that we are all interconnected and, to an extent, responsible for each other in our words and actions. Yet increasingly, teenagers follow adults in our society, showing a callous disregard for personal dignity and human suffering in favor of a perverted version of free speech that often comes anonymously and without personal responsibility. Texting, email, and Facebook make harsh interactions impersonal, as if writing it down and sending it makes it okay.
Only a tiny fraction of teens will respond to difficulties by taking their own lives, but many will consider it. Each of us has a responsibility to help each other find a better way, lead one another toward a sense of self-worth, and emphasize the worth of others. No one is responsible for suicide except the person committing it, and I’m not suggesting otherwise. But the choices we make in our daily interactions belong to each of us. Make them humanely.
Samantha Schwartz: In high school, almost everyone knows someone who has thought about committing suicide. Some have issues at home or within themselves that none of us can control. For others, the problem lies with interpersonal relationships. We’ve all heard about cases of teens killing themselves because they’ve been bullied by classmates.
I would venture to say that 90% of people are not mean-spirited or intentionally hurtful. So how do the cruel 10% get away with what they do? It’s the followers. They stand by and allow it to happen without blinking an eye. I hate to be a cynic, but I’ve come to believe that followers make up most of the population, and yet it’s hard to blame them. Taking a stand is scary; no one wants to risk being the next target.
I’m no Gandhi. I’ve slipped into bashing someone so excruciatingly annoying that I convinced myself he’s brought it upon himself. We need to realize that just like academic intelligence, there is social intelligence, and some people just aren’t very gifted. They have trouble picking up social cues, so they behave in ways we find odd or irritating. I’m still developing patience for these people. Sometimes what I say feels like word vomit—awful things flowing out of my mouth without my control. But I do have control. It’s a matter of training myself to think before I speak.
My mom once had a notepad with yoga’s Principles of Mindful Speech written on them. I think they’re right on. We’re supposed to ask ourselves three questions before we say something: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? When tempted to pile on complaints about someone, thinking through these questions can help slow down the thought process and let the right words come to the surface.
It’s definitely a challenge, and I don’t always succeed. However, when I feel guilty for talking badly about someone, I try to reverse it by looking for something I like about her and complimenting her on it. I see it as tipping the scale of someone’s day slightly toward the positive. We all weigh our days subconsciously, counting up the good and bad things to give it a final rating.
Those days add up.