GREEN TWP, OH - There still is much that the Greater Cincinnati community doesn't know about the young man who went to La Salle High School Monday morning and shot himself in a classroom, with other students present.
But the fact the student attempted suicide in such a public way tells University of Cincinnati Professor Keith King a lot about how the boy was suffering.
"It almost makes you wonder whether he really wanted to cry out for help and didn't necessarily know how to do it and just wanted everyone to know," said King, a professor of health at UC who has done extensive research on suicide prevention and at one time worked in an adolescent psychiatric facility. "It just really screams out, ‘Look at me. This is the pain I was going through.'"
In many ways, what happened at La Salle is all too common.
While the overall suicide rate in the U.S. has remained relatively stable for decades, adolescent suicide rates have almost quadrupled since the 1950s, King said. A lot of that increase can be linked to changes in society, with many young people feeling less connected to their schools, families, peers and communities.
Kids who feel disconnected are far more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as drinking, doing drugs, sexual promiscuity and even attempting suicide – especially once they get to the point of feeling "hopeless and helpless," King said.
Add to that growing problems with bullying, and the combination can be disastrous for lonely, stressed out teens, he said.
"The bullying is just a completely new game these days," he said. "Especially with cyber bullying, the kid is sitting there looking at the monitor, and they're by themselves being bullied, and there's no one there to help them. With those kids, it will build up and build up and build up."
Boys More Likely to Complete Suicide Attempts
While adolescent girls are three times more likely to attempt suicide than boys, boys are five times more likely to complete a suicide attempt, King said.
"Boys tend to let this build up inside them more and more and more," he said. "They tend to use more lethal means, such as firearms."
And the end of the school year is an especially stressful time for students. The La Salle High School calendar noted that Advanced Placement exam week was scheduled to begin May 6, a week from the day of the young man's suicide attempt.
In some ways, however, La Salle is well prepared to deal with the school tragedy, said Dr. Daniel Nelson, medical director of the Post Traumatic Healing Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and a member of the advisory board for the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.
Nelson met in January with La Salle parents and faculty who asked him to speak about school violence and the types of preparations schools should make to prepare for tragedies and disasters.
"The school is very supportive, very proactive and very caring for their students," he said.
Nelson said the fact that the school was looking ahead and trying to plan for the unthinkable shows just how caring it is.
"The hardest part about dealing with a disaster – it's kind of like insurance," he said. "None of us buy insurance because we want to get in an accident. It's preventative. In this instance, most schools would prefer to think that it's not going to happen to them."
With all the pressure being placed on teens these days, though, nearly every school could do more to help students learn how to cope with stress, UC's King said.
"There is this complete push for perfection, and (students) need to be better and better and better," he said. "The academics have been absolutely escalated, and there are such high stakes with all the testing that's going on."
The coming days will be critical for the students who witnessed the suicide attempt as well as the rest of La Salle's student body, faculty, staff and parents, experts say.
Take Care Not to Glorify the Suicide Attempt
Adults and the news media must take care not to glorify the incident somehow, said Karl Stukenberg, chairman of the psychology department at Xavier University's College of Social Sciences, Health & Education.
"We need to emphasize the tragedy that people didn't get the care they needed," Stukenberg said. "We want to avoid the sense of Tom Sawyer being at his own funeral – the sense that if I can do that, it will be a media event, and I will be famous."
And the last thing anyone wants are other kids making copycat attempts, he said.
In addition, as the school offers counseling to all its students, administrators should be respectful if students aren't yet ready to talk, Stukenberg said.
"Part of what goes on when something like this happens is that we lose the sense of control over our lives," he said. "We want to help those individuals regain a sense of control and a sense of being on top of things."
And that includes letting students have a sense of control over how they cope with the trauma, he said.
Recovery could be even more difficult
for people because of the deadly school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December and the Boston Marathon bombing, Nelson said.
"As these events start to stack up on top of each other, what might have been easier to deal with becomes a body blow," he said.
But even after the initial shock wears off, there will be lots more work left to do.
Just about every school, for example, could stand to beef up suicide prevention efforts, King said.
That could include programs to address bullying and depression and teaching students how to cope with the pressures they face as they grow more independent.
"The number one most effective factor in the schools is school connectedness," King said. "The more positively connected a kid feels to his or her school, the less likely they are to engage in suicidal thoughts or behavior."
That's partly because the students are happier and more secure, he said, but it's also because a connected student has friends, teachers and other staff members who can quickly detect changes in behavior that could signal larger problems.
"By far," he said, "the number one thing they can do is try to get people connected positively."