TW: This post is about suicidal ideation and suicide. I do describe suicide attempts and frank discussions with students regarding the details of their suicidal ideation.
My previous two posts in this series (Part 1, Part 2) discussed how to handle difficult conversations with autistic students. Part 1 discussed sex and how to help autistic students navigate the world of sexuality. Part 2 discussed how to help students understand the line between reality and fiction, particularly when they are immersing themselves in a scary or fearful reality.
I emphasized in both cases the importance of having a relatively nonplussed if not flat affect when engaging in these conversations. The reason for that is that the child already is having a hard enough time understanding their own emotions without the emotions of others complicating matters.
In cases of talking about sexuality, the student is experiencing feelings they do not understand. They are becoming sexually attracted to another person, be it of another or the same gender. In Utah same gender attraction is particularly difficult for children to understand because the LGBTQIA community are just beginning to be able to openly enter the public forum. They do not know how to process this. If we tell them that they should not be feeling those emotions, they will shut down. If we tell them they are not feeling their emotions, they will not only shut down but they will start questioning themselves. They will shrink away inside. If a boy is attracted to boys, fine. If a 2nd grade child is entering precocious puberty and experiencing sexual attraction, fine. These are facts, we should be able to dispassionately listen.
In cases of Slenderman or other CreepyPasta, the child believes that something fictitious is real. Telling them they are wrong is not particularly helpful. Acting all scared and freaking out on them contributes nothing to the situation but may actually deepen fear and belief in these fictional realities. If they believe in Slenderman, fine. If they believe Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin are real, fine. If they believe Dr. Who is real, fine.
In the case of the present post, I will address suicidal ideation and attempts. This is one of those cases that having a stone-faced expression is extra important.
I say it is extra important when discussing factors related to suicide and suicidal ideation because there is a very real danger of our emotions making the situation worse-and this is one time we cannot afford to make matters worse. These children are having emotions that adults with a lifetime of experiences often cannot handle; without the life experience to put them into context. Also, children are more impulsive than adults, further complicating discussions about emotions. We often have to fight our natural tendencies to try to solve problems and provide answers rather than just listen. We will hear students say things that make no sense and might be downright wrong. We cannot emotionally react. This is hard. All we can do it listen and validate their emotions. Nothing more.
This post gets to an important point I did not mention earlier with regards to the video of the interrogation I link right below. Note that one of the girls starts out the interview by flat-out lying, because she’s scared and wants to give a good impression of herself. She tries to pin everything on the other girl and acts all innocent and naive. By this time the police have evidence that this girl is far from innocent. As the interviewer does not give emotional feedback, her story changes and becomes inconsistent because she is unable to use the emotions of the interviewer to guide her actions. This is not to say the girl was being evil in any way, she was only doing what we all do when we meet someone for the first time. Be on our best behavior and try to give a good impression. Kids will try to either give adults what they want to hear or else the opposite if it gives attention or escape from consequences. We have to give the student time to trust us and let the truth come out on their own terms-then we get the unbiased truth from their eyes.
An Educational Aside
So, I was speaking with a parent of an autistic student and they suggested I write a post about the conversations I have with students because I do not shy away from difficult or uncomfortable topics. I thought about what she said a lot and I realized I am unique among a lot of teachers because I am willing to talk about things like puberty, sexual orientation, CreepyPasta, depression, or suicide with students so long as the situation and conversation are appropriate. And I do it with a nonplussed expression that gives the students a sense of calm, or at least a perception that I am in control and not surprised by their questions (this video shows two great police interrogators doing exactly this).
I feel this is an overlooked yet important role for a teacher. Anytime I see students starting down a tough path I want to intervene before they go so far they reject outside help. In hindsight, I worry how some situations would have turn out had I not taken the time to help the students get a grasp on their own thoughts and feelings.
Example 1 – 13 Reasons Why
I was in a Junior High recently helping out. After playing a few games and working with some kids they pulled me aside. This was a group of 5 autistic students and one of their peers. They wanted to talk with an adult about 13 Reasons Why. They did not understand why the girl committed suicide.
Now, I thought 13 Reasons Why was a bit clumsy in their presentation, and thus confusing for these autistic kids. In the context of the series it was clear that the girl was tormented by everything that was happening to her and chose suicide as a way to escape seemingly unavoidable pain and torment. These students did not get it.
They were confused about why the girl (Hannah) was so troubled by the vast majority of the bullying that was described. These young boys (as all were male) did not understand how a lesbian kiss, a racy photograph, a friend being sexually assaulted, breakups, or being voted “best ass” would be so terrible. These students told me quite matter of factly that being raped was a sufficient reason to commit suicide, but the other issues in the show were insufficient. They wanted so badly to understand. Their nonautistic friends/peers seemed to understand and were talking about 13 Reasons Why and these students wanted in on the conversation.
Here was how the conversation went. These students grabbed me and asked about 13 Reasons Why and then volunteered the info in the above paragraph. They then asked why these things were a big deal…and was Hannah in the TV show right for slitting her wrists. Not small questions, but sort of important ones. Fortunately a school social worker was in the room with me for this conversation. They just sat and listened to the conversation in case they were needed but preferred to leave the talk to me because these students approached me specifically to ask.
In this case, I went to the Rogerian method to see if I could help these peers answer their own questions. I asked how embarrassed they would feel if someone had an inappropriate photo of them and sent it to everyone and now everyone saw that image without permission. These students talked for a few minutes about how they would feel and it ended a mixed bag. About half said they would not have taken the picture and thus it was an “invalid hypothetical situation” (as one put it), and the other half went from lack of understanding to mortification thinking of someone seeing them in a private or compromising situation. A similar conversation ensued for a video of them kissing someone of their nonpreferred gender and having that passed around. They all felt being nominated for “best ass” was a stupid thing to be angry about as it was a compliment. I was not able to sway their thinking, so I didn’t try.
The social worker jumped in and helped with the next question…the friend that was raped. All of these students said it was inappropriate to take the anger one would feel toward the rapist and kill yourself for it. They unanimously agreed the right thing would have been for Hannah to kill the rapist. At this point I jumped in and told them to settle down and think for a bit about what they were saying, and they agreed perhaps the right thing to do would be to go to the police, not go all Tarantino on the situation. But they were stuck on one point: why did Hannah internalize someone else’s suffering? Was she guilty for not trying to help or not reporting it? Why did she do that to herself? She was stupid? She was not thinking? And so on.
I asked them if they ever knew someone had done something wrong and hurt another person and they were unable to do anything about it because they did not know how or were scared. They all said yes (much to my surprise). They said they saw things all the time they did not know how to deal with. I asked if Hannah could have been the same so her inaction and her friend’s pain was eating away at her. They said yes, but pointed out she was not autistic so it did not make sense she acted like that. I said maybe and gently reminded them that not only autistics have difficulty dealing with complicated emotions.
For the rape, I just listened and added a few thoughts to help guide them in more helpful directions. They asked why she was going to this person she knew was a rapist, even if she was trying to get a confession. One then asked if the girl was dumb and thought she was in a movie going to entrap him like that. They did not understand any of her actions leading up to the rape. I interjected here to ask if her actions justified the rape and they changed tack very quickly (honestly, I was just unwilling to let any boy think an action from a girl ever justified rape – and they jumped to the same conclusion almost immediately). They said no, it was not her fault. It was the boy. They were just thinking out loud earlier and did not mean to suggest it was her fault. He hurt her and deserved to be killed (I reminded them the police exist for a reason, and to remember our society does not condone going around killing people-regardless what they do to us).
What surprised me was the next thing said. All of the students thought the rape alone was sufficient reason to kill oneself. They said they could imagine the powerlessness and pain of having something like that happen and how a person would want to not exist. They were angry at the teacher on the show for not taking it seriously when Hannah reported the specifics of the rape to him and passively sought help.
Okay…that was sort of intense a conversation for a bunch of 7th-8th graders, so I had a few questions to put things in context. I asked if they understood suicide was a permanent thing. It was ending a life. Killing one’s self. No coming back. It was not an idea to be taken lightly or to joke about. They understood that. It was actually for this reason they were confused. These students heard peers talking about how cool the show was and how “lucky” Hannah was that she just solved her problem. These autistic students thought she made a bad choice and could have gone to therapy or given the tapes to the police rather than kill herself.
I agreed with the students that suicide is literally the most extreme option and that it does not actually solve any problems. The problems and life are still there for everyone else to deal with, you just do not exist any more. They felt that suicide was not a good idea and still did not understand why friends were speaking positively about it like it was cool. I suggested that their friends either were dealing with things these students did not know about or else they could be showboating and trying to sound cool.
Apparently, that last sentence was what these students needed to hear. They could handle the fact that perhaps their peers had hard lives. They also could understand that these kids were being stupid and joking about things they didn’t know anything about.
Regardless, we all agreed suicide is not a good idea and we should go talk to out parents or school counselors if we ever have suicidal thoughts. The social worker reported to me these students had stopped talking about 13 Reasons Why afterwards. Apparently they had no more burning questions and thus were able to just let it go and move on.
Example 2 – Suicide as an Extreme Solution to a Manageable Problem
This was a tougher conversation because the student was angry at all adults when we sat down to chat. Earlier that morning this student had thrown themselves into traffic on a major thoroughfare with a hope of getting hit by a car. Fortunately the car had stopped. The parents, rather than taking this student home, delivered them to school as normal. Needless to say, this student never made it to class as they started trashing the school the second they got inside. They climbed up on things and tried to belly flop off them to harm themselves. I physically intervened to get the student into the gym and away from a crowded hallway. They ended up hanging out with me for a while on the stairs to the stage in the gym while no one was in there.
I asked what was up and I was told to “…go fuck yourself” and “shut the hell up you bitch asshole. You don’t know anything”. Clearly they were not going to talk to me. So we sat next to another for an hour or so, staring at the gym floor. Importantly, I did not pull out my phone or look at papers I had. I just sat with this student, waiting for them to be ready. Just as bored as them. Finally the student asked a loaded question: “Why do you like me. No one likes me?”.
I answered honestly, “I don’t know, I just do”. The student was confused, but knew I was telling the truth. So we sat some more. By now I had memorized every scratch and flecks on the gym floor. The student then, out of the blue, notified me they tried to kill themself by jumping into the road on the way to school. I asked where. They answered (it was a well thought out location). They recounted what happened, that they had planned it all weekend, waited until the right moment, and went for it. But failed. The student was mad it didn’t work, but not overly concerned, so I was concerned.
I asked if there was anything the student wanted to talk about, no limitations on the topic. The student said no and returned to staring at the floor. But they did not move away from me, so I stared at the floor too and waited. Probably 5 minutes later they told me they were sad or angry all the time and never had any fun. Play was not fun. Video games were not fun. Riding their bike was not fun. They had no friends. They hated school. They were mad at one parent and violently lashing out at the other one during weekend visits. They spent the weekend alternating between crying and looking for sharp things in the house to throw at this parent. The student said that it was because they were so angry and mad and sad that they wanted to kill themself to start over.
I interjected, “Start over? What do you mean?”. I had dealt with suicidal students in the past and they often did not understand the concept of death and its (as far as we know) permanence. After my question the student looked at me like I just asked directions to my own house. They told me that “suiciding myself” would start everything over. I restated that I didn’t understand how it would “start everything over, what does that mean?”.
This part scared me as I had often heard it before. The student had a belief that can be best understood by remembering how obsessed autistic kids are with Minecraft. The student believed that if they died they would “spawn” somewhere else as another person and perhaps they would be happier.
So, this student that had just made a suicide attempt believed that death was like a video game. They would just respawn somewhere else on the map and start afresh. I texted the school social worker and kept the conversation going. It was now beholden on me to help a child to understand that death is permanent. Life was not a video game. When we go, we are gone. And people are sad because of that.
I spoke to this student about reality and fantasy. We talked about his family’s religious belief system with regards to the afterlife. This student had never considered that the idea of a heaven was incongruous with their ideas of “respawing” or whatever reincarnation scenario they perceived as life after death.
This got the student thinking. They asked, “so suiciding myself is not a good idea, huh?”. I asked what they thought and the student said, “I dunno”. I asked if they wanted me to call their therapist for an impromptu conversation and the student said yes. In the time we were waiting on the therapist this student opened up about a LOT of perceived problems at home. I listened calmly and without judgment. It was clearly cathartic for the student.
I texted the psychologist, who was able to move things around and come to the school for the rest of the day to work with this student and extend upon the conversation the student and I had, which the student recounted to the psychologist so the therapist knew where to begin based on what this student comprehended from our conversation.
This student remained depressed and anxious, but at least they did not attempt anything dramatic after our little chat.
Example 3 – Slenderman and an Ominous Black Skull
This is continuing from my Slenderman post and about the student that was trying to encourage the rest of the students in the class to commit suicide. I had mentioned that this student had been talking about suicide and that was what brought the CreepyPasta connection to my attention. Everything below I pieced together from talking to this student and his peers as I never did get the whole story from the paraeducators that were present at the time this behavior emerged.
This student was outside one day and running around screaming that he was going to die and it was time. He was telling other students that they should do it as a group and he would show them how. He told them they would go to the tallest building in the city and jump off. If they survived the doctors would give them strong pain pills that they would use to overdose themselves. He took some peers up on the jungle gym and jumped off to show them how. He then climbed back up and started pushing the other students down to show them how to commit suicide.
I was talking to a teacher mentor (as this was before school) and a paraeducator brought this student into the school and said he was “not invited at school any more because he was saying inappropriate things and pushing kids”. That was all I got. My paraeducator was trying to ban this student from school, so obviously I had to intervene. The student was so upset that he ran to a corner, hung his head and started sobbing. I walked over.
I asked him what was up and he said he was sad. I said that was fine. Sad is okay. I would sit by him until he was ready to talk. I quickly set the day up with the paraeducators to teach the class and I sat by this student. After 15 minutes he started to talk.
He told me he wanted to kill himself. He could not sleep the night before because in his dreams he saw a black skull in the clouds that was seeping blood. This was an omen that he was going to be murdered. He told me he had stolen matches from his house and tried to open the knife drawer, but no one knew he had tried. He wanted to not exist any more. Everything was bad and there was no point to his existing. Death would be a good break. His family would be happy. He would no longer be a problem. He would no longer be bad.
After a few minutes of listening I asked him if he was ready to come inside so we could talk in a private spot with chairs. He said no, so we sat outside in the wind staring at the rubber chips in the play area. After a few more minutes he told me he was too sad to do anything and I just needed to let him curl up in a ball and die. I told him I was not allowed to do that, but I would walk to the other side of the play area to give him some privacy if he wanted. He wanted me to stay close because he was scared. So I stayed.
After an hour or so the student wanted to go inside and sit in a safe dark place so I said that was fine and let him. He immediately fell asleep. I took advantage of the time to talk to the school psychologist, call his parents, and communicate to the clinical psychologist associated with the district.
The next day the district sent a crisis team to work with this student. They followed him around during an extended recess and were talking to him. I had warned them to keep and eye on the school boundaries as this student was capable of bolting and taking them on a chase. He walked them out to the border of the school boundaries and started talking to them. He told them a range of stories that got the attention of the crisis team.
He told them about the time he tried to murder his little brother and the time he accidentally broke his sister’s arm with a baseball bat. He told them that he played with himself a lot and he was a devil worshiper. He also runs away from home at night.
Not one of these stories were true. Some had elements of truth that was used as a base for the lie. But he got one hell of an emotional reaction from these four adults. They were concerned about him being psychotic and dangerous. They worried about his well-being. They clearly were feeding this student’s attention seeking tendencies. And better, he was able to make up extreme stuff with his imagination and these people were believing every word he said and feeding him emotions in return. Emotional manipulation at it’s finest.
I assert he was just telling the adults what they expected to hear and he was protecting himself by not telling the truth. Kids are not going to reveal their secrets to strangers and let alone adults that are new. This student felt out these adults, saw they were hanging on every word, and he went for it. Since they were definitely giving reactions, he continued. Had the crisis team kept straight faces without giving emotional fuel to the fire, they may have at least gotten closer to the truth. Definitely this student would not have made himself out to sound like a complete psychopath to get attention.
When the district clinical psychologist came to visit, I debriefed her not on what this student had said, but that he had been emotionally playing the crisis team for chumps. He had been escalating his stories based on their reactions and she needed to keep an eye on that when she spoke to him.
The district psychologist met with this student for a few hours and then with his mother. After a few rounds of telling tall tales and getting no reaction, the student dropped his guard and just started telling the truth of the situation, which was pretty much the same as he told me. He did volunteer some information to her that he did not give me like knowing where firearms and ammunition were located in grandparent’s houses.
The consensus was that this student was not in fact suicidal. But he was well capable of it and we had to treat it as a serious situation as his plan was credible and well thought out. The student had been careful in word usage with both me and the clinical psychologist that he had, in the past, tried to kill himself, but that was when he was “very, very, very, very – 4 very’s – angry” but that right now he was only “very very – 2 very’s – angry”. He did want to commit suicide that day when talking to his friends, but that was because he was so angry at himself for being a not good friend and a bad person because he was depressed.
He notified me that he had in fact tried to severely injury (but never kill) his brother using knives and other sharp objects. He used to escape his house through his window until his parents put an alarm on it. He had tried to start the house on fire.
He did not know why he did these things, but he really wanted to at the time and then later feels guilty about it and wants to kill himself. He constantly causes himself pain to punish himself for being bad, mostly by stabbing himself on the end of his fingers with nails or pins. He also draws bloody and angry things because it lets him see what he is feeling. The picture below is God (“Heavenly Father”) killing him using every means necessary to be sure the job gets done.
He then told me he wanted to kill himself to solve these problems. I asked how it would solve them. He said, “I would be gone, and I am the problem”. I asked how that would work and he countered with a very hard, yet heartfelt question, “Dr. H. What happens when we die. Where do we go or do we just go away?”
I went over his family’s religious perspective on heaven and an afterlife. We discussed reincarnation based on the Hindu tradition (he brought it up). We discussed that reincarnation is not in any way related to respawning in Minecraft or Super Mario Bros. To this day I do not know if he truly understood death was a permanent state, or even if he was yet capable of understanding permanence of decisions. It was an important conversation nonetheless because it allowed this student an opportunity to contemplate mortality with someone there to help with context rather than doing it on his own when sad, angry, or depressed.
At that point we made a deal. We discussed how depression is not bad. Being mad at one’s self or at other people is not bad. Being anxious is not bad. Being hyper is not bad. Choosing to be naughty is the problem (and for the record this kid could be naughtier than almost any other student I ever met when he chose to). We would do the following: If he was feeling too strong an emotion and he felt out of control, he could talk to me about it. I would give him space to deal with it and then we would do work. If he was depressed he would tell me. If he wanted to kill himself he would tell me and we would talk through it together. If he was happy he similarly would tell me and we would talk through his happiness together.
I was rewarding the sharing, not the specific emotion being shared with attention; and I was doing it on purpose. Sharing became easier. The major bouts of depression dropped from weekly to biweekly to monthly. This student was functioning better. But he still had days where there was nothing he could do but feel buried by his depression and extreme anger. So I gave him space to let himself be emotional with no consequences; with the expectation that schoolwork would still be completed.
It is my true belief the clinical psychologist only got the truth from this student by being patient and completely nonplussed. In every case (and with me on many situation), this student always started with 2-3 lies to protect himself; and these were usually bombshell level whoppers calibrated Thor maximum effect. If he got a response to one of the lies, he would double down on it and make a believable narrative out of it. This freaked out a lot of people and they truly thought of him as a dangerously unstable child and in great need of institutionalization.
In reality, he is a cripplingly shy autistic child that presents like a person with borderline personality. He has too much empathy to function sometimes, particularly for injustices toward animals and disabled children. His empathy leads him to rage, which he internalizes. He shuts down and becomes self-critical (and self harming) when he makes a mistake and gets corrected in a brusque manner. He would be hyper and almost manic when he was in a good mood, drawing 20-30 amazing pictures in an hour while talking to friends and cracking jokes, then he would crash and retreat into a virtually impenetrable shell of depression and fear. Yes, when angry he was capable of violence, even extreme violence; but this was not his defining characteristic. When he was given some coping skills and a listening ear that just listen to his feelings and validate them, he became somewhat able to manage his own emotions.
Most importantly, his reported suicidal ideation went down with time, even when his depressive and manic states did not change all that much in frequency. He was developing some emotional identification and coping skills. This student just needed to have someone not judge them.
From an earlier post on autism and emotion:
[W]e constantly tell autistic chidden (and adults) that their emotional world is wrong. We tell them that they are broken and they need to at least act like everyone else because that is somehow “right” or “correct”. We demand they feel how we want them to; often because we are not comfortable with others feeling differently than ourselves. What should be happening is that we need to be specifically helping autistic children understand and work with their emotions. In fact, we need to do this with all children, but I will focus on autistic children as they are my future students.
Despite the public perception, what I see when I see autistic individuals are very emotional people. In fact, I would say in every way other than the verbal expression of their internal state, they have a much more intimate appreciation of their emotional state than many of us do. It is not that autistic people wear their emotions on their sleeves, they don’t-but their actions are much more closely linked to their affective state than a great many people.
As a concrete example, my late brother was very giggly, smiley, puckish, mischievous and silly when happy, very weepy and prone to cry when sad, and get out of his way if he was frustrated or angry. Interestingly, it was not just the angry states that left Kyle in a state where he could not function, when he was happy and puckish his life was just as disrupted as when he was angry or sad. He felt his emotions quite acutely, but he did not have the tools necessary to work within his emotions in day-to-day life.
In my short time teaching I have found that it is actually quite easy to connect emotionally with the autistic kids I have worked with. They are keen to share, so long as there is no manipulation intended on my part and that I am patient with them as they work through their issues. I find if I take the time to ask the right questions and listen closely to the answers, I can actually serve as a sort of sounding board or therapist that can help my autistic students understand their emotions and not be controlled by them.
I do everything I can to follow my own advice here. For suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, I validate their emotions. I know autistics have a rich emotional life, they just sometimes lack a skill-set or toolbox necessary to express this to the rest of us. So I try to meet them halfway. I do not volunteer words or ways to express the emotion, I just express that I believe that they are feeling what they think they are. Then we work together to give these emotions names and characters that we can use to communicate.
I want autistic students to feel empowered by the knowledge of their feelings and sense of control that it brings. In short, I want them to thrive, emotionally. I want them to grow. And I want them, to be the ones making these breakthroughs, not me.