When Suicide Isn’t Preventable

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Today I searched my classroom walls for a note from a teenage boy, written with Crayola markers, on a sheet of printer paper, folded not quite symmetrical.

It was written by a funny, loving–and inexplicably, desperately unhappy–young man. I wanted to read his note again–maybe to see if there was a clue there, any indication of the darkness what would knock us all sideways at the end of his junior year. I wanted to examine it the same way I examined his grades and attendance record and discipline history–searching for meaning, patterns, anything to make sense of a senseless situation.

The note wasn’t there.  Maybe I tossed it–along with all the other mounds of paper that accumulate on an English teacher’s desk–tossed it out in a fit of I-must-get-this-place-organized determination.

At any rate. It wouldn’t have satisfied me. It wouldn’t have explained anything. It wouldn’t have given me the key to preventing yet another incomprehensible loss.

I know that.

And yet I still looked–because it seems we should be able to prevent these tragedies–it seems that when a child is in that much pain, it should seep from his pores and leave smudges on everything he touches, alerting us that he has decided to never sit in another chair, or walk another hallway, or fake another smile, ever again. Unhappiness that potent should carry a vile odor, compelling everyone within reach to track down the monstrous source and root it out.

It shouldn’t just hit us all unaware, in the middle of the night, with the flick of a blade or a trigger or pill bottle.

Isn’t that what all these lapel buttons and social media posts and status updates are saying? That if only we–his parents, his friends, his teachers–if only we had been more vigilant, we might have noticed something?

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You’ve seen these images. You’ve thought to yourself, yes… I must be vigilant. Maybe you’ve even looked at your own students or children or friends, and gone through the checklists, reassuring yourself that you, at least, haven’t missed the signs. Maybe you even wondered, If suicide is 100% preventable, who didn’t earn a passing grade in this case?

I appreciate the prevention sentiment.  I appreciate that the people crafting these buttons and posting these images value the life of these children every bit as much as anyone else.

But I disagree with the idea that suicide is “100% preventable.”

You cannot prevent suicide.

You can offer compassion. You can offer advice. You can offer a listening ear.  You can be alert to all the signs of withdrawal and detachment and despair, and engage in all sorts of proactive behavior.

But no matter how much you love another person, no matter how much help you offer, no matter how carefully you monitor their behavior–no matter how much you weep and pray  and even plead with the heavens to save your child or your spouse or your friend, you cannot be with them every moment of every day, and you cannot prevent a person who has decided to do so, from taking their own life.

You can’t do that.

You can offer alternatives, but in the end, we each have the freedom to do with the precious gift of life whatever we desire. You are not responsible for another person’s desires, or their choices.

Even if you missed some of the signs–even if you were too busy paying the bills or monitoring someone else’s at-risk warning signs or scraping yourself out of bed that morning, and missed a despairing text message, you are not ultimately responsible for their choices. They are.

Acknowledging this truth does not mean you love or respect or value that person any less. Suicide is not a zero sum game where if enough blame is assigned to the guilty party, the innocent suffer less. It is catastrophic and excruciating and it blindsides even those who agonize in private, bitter silence: I should have known.  But that “100% preventable” statistic is true about only one person’s potential suicide: the person reading that statement.

You are responsible for you–and yes, part of being you includes being a light to a darkening world, and spreading hope where despair seeds itself relentlessly, and engaging in dialog when others demand debate or even silence. But it does not include holding the power of life and death in your hands.

You are not a God; you are human.

And that hurts.

But it doesn’t need to destroy you.


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