Typically, the beginning of the school year is a time of exuberance and lofty expectations. Students are reunited with friends and look forward to the classes and extracurricular activities that will help shape bright futures.
This year, however, that enthusiasm has been tempered by tragedy for the Rapid City school district. According to Superintendent Lori Simon, eight students and a teacher have died since mid-July. Three of the students took their own lives.
Rather than brush aside a topic most people would rather not talk about, the school district decided to address youth suicide in a public forum and encourage the community to confront the loss of innocent lives.
Rapid City, however, is not alone dealing with what has become a national crisis.
In August, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that the suicide rate for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 reached a 40-year high in 2015 and had doubled since 2007. For boys, the suicide rate increased by 31 percent over those eight years. According to the Parent Resource Program, 3,470 high school students attempt suicide every day in the U.S. Youth suicide was so prevalent in 2015 on the Pine Ridge Reservation that an emergency declaration was made by tribal officials. Overall, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another study published in 2013 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal said that 12 and 13 year olds exposed to a classmate’s suicide were five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
Faced with three suicides in two months, the Rapid City school district chose to go public with the issue rather than hope it would get lost in the hustle and bustle of the school year's first days. School officials held a town hall meeting on Wednesday night at city council chambers. Mental health experts and law enforcement personnel were there to talk to parents and others about risk factors, warning signs, and coping strategies for youth and their parents.
While it may be difficult for adults to understand why those with their entire lives before them would kill themselves, it happens every day in this nation — leaving an almost unbearable tidal wave of grief in its wake. It’s also apparent that ignoring the problem won’t solve it. In fact, one can argue that not talking about it makes it worse for youth who are struggling with their self-esteem and sense of worth in a more complicated and transparent society.
Supt. Simon and the school district deserve credit for bringing this sensitive topic to the forefront in this community. But Wednesday night’s public meeting should only be considered the first step in what should be an ongoing effort to save children’s lives. Other school districts also should take steps to educate their students and parents about how to identify the warning signs and prevent youth suicide.
These are life lessons that are just as important as anything taught in the classroom. Our children need to dream and pursue all the possibilities that life has to offer. If they don't see hope and suffer in silence, society has failed them and what does that say about the rest of us.