Adam Reule’s classmates in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, wanted to include a full-page memorial in their 1998 yearbook dedicated to him and another student who had died before their graduation. Friends of Annette Sander and Jennifer Powell of Victorville, California, wanted to remember their deaths in 1995 by planting trees on the campus of the high school the two girls attended. Across the country, memorial gestures like these are controversial because they are dedicated to teens who died by committing suicide.
Memorials to suicide victims make some parents, school administrators, teachers, suicidologists, and others uneasy because they fear that memorializing suicide victims will promote suicide contagion, the potential that some teens may be influenced to commit suicide by someone else’s suicidal behavior. For example, according to many of those who work with teens at risk, teens who feel unloved and unappreciated see suicide victims receiving massive amounts of attention through memorials and other outpourings of grief, and may be inspired to commit suicide so that they, too, can receive that type of attention. However, Jodi Brandenberger, a counselor with the San Bernardino County Office of Education, points out that these teens do not think the situation through:
A child may think, “I’ll never be the homecoming queen, but at least I can memorialize myself with a tree or be in a yearbook.” And they think they’ll somehow be able to hang around and see it for themselves.
Teens craving attention do not see the mistake in their logic: It is impossible for them to enjoy the attention when they are dead.
Other experts believe that memorials to suicide victims are not appropriate because they glamorize or condone suicide. They contend that teens who are considering suicide may perceive memorials to a suicide victim as society’s way of honoring the suicidal behavior, rather than as a way of mourning the victim’s death. Walt Lyszak, Adam Reule’s high school principal, explains why he initially opposed a memorial page in the yearbook: “There is a possibility of kids feeling that they have become immortal by being in the yearbook.” (The school eventually reached a compromise with the senior class; small portraits of Adam, who committed suicide, and the other student, who was killed by a drunk driver, were placed along with their names and the dates of their births and deaths on a full-page photo of a nature scene.) Pamela Cantor, a psychologist and lecturer at Harvard University, agrees that memorials can be dangerous and explains why suicide victims should not be memorialized:
It gives the wrong message . . . that someone who should have used more constructive means to deal with their prob- lems, such as therapy, took a destructive means—not only destroying themselves but their families and their circle of friends. This is something we should not memorialize, but pity. We should be grieving these kids, not eulogizing them.
According to Cantor and other suicidologists, memorializing teens who committed suicide may lead other troubled teens to think that suicide is an acceptable method of resolving their crises instead of trying to find alternative solutions to their problems.
Not all suicide experts and counselors agree that memorials for suicide victims should be banned. Some believe that memorials to suicide victims may actually prevent future suicides. Mark DeAntonio, an adolescent psychiatrist in Los Angeles, argues why suicide victims should be memorialized:
People like to keep suicide secret because it is so disturbing, but silence doesn’t resolve the issue. It just makes the suicide even more mysterious. A bench or a tree [dedicated to the student suicide victim] acknowledges that someone was lost—that we failed to protect an adolescent. And kids deal better with suicide when it’s out in the open to discuss.
In DeAntonio’s opinion, memorials present the perfect opportunity to discuss suicide prevention among other students.
Other mental health authorities maintain that a death by suicide should be treated no differently than any other death. Memorials for teen suicides are appropriate, argues David Shaffer, an expert on teen suicide and a psychiatrist at Columbia University in New York, because most teen suicides are the result of mental illness. “If we can feel sorry, plant a tree and pay our respects for a child who died of leukemia, why can’t we do the same thing for a child who died of depression?” He contends that teens suffer a risk of greater emotional harm if suicides are ignored, rather than remembered for the lessons they can teach. Furthermore, suicide experts contend that arguments against “condoning” suicide by approving a memorial are misguided. Mary Kluesner, president of the Minneapolisbased organization Suicide Awareness-Voices of Education, asserts that inherent in the belief that memorials condone suicide
is a disapproval and condemnation of the person who died of suicide. This is one of the modern punishments suffered by families whose loved one died from a brain disease.
By not remembering the suicide victim’s death, she maintains, society is punishing the victim’s family for a death that is not its fault.
Others contend that fears that memorials prompt suicide contagion are irrational. Kluesner maintains that acknowledging Adam Reule’s or any other student’s suicide with a memorial page in a yearbook does not encourage other teens to commit suicide:
There are no documented scientific studies, only rumor and assumed belief, that contagion is a reality. Suicide contagion is very, very rare. The patterning and copying behavior of adolescents does not necessarily transfer to suicide. The student who said, “Why would anyone kill themselves be- cause we remembered our friend with a memorial page?” most likely had the most mature response to the situation.
Prohibiting or discouraging mourners to remember suicide victims with a memorial because authorities are apprehensive of what might happen is absurd, she maintains.
Most authorities on teen suicide agree that the greatest threat to suicide contagion or clusters is media coverage of suicides and suicide memorial ceremonies, not the memorials themselves. Although the media have become more careful about how they report suicides, they have been blamed for several teen suicide clusters in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Four teenagers in Bergenfield, New Jersey, killed themselves in 1987 in a suicide pact that involved carbon monoxide poisoning. Their suicides received extensive media coverage, and a few days later, two more teens killed themselves in a similar manner in Chicago. A third teen killed himself a week later by carbon monoxide poisoning; investigators found a clipping in his room about the Bergenfield suicides. Suicides by teens using carbon monoxide were also reported the same week in Illinois, Nebraska, and Washington. Likewise, the suicides of Annette Sander and Jennifer Powell in 1995 generated widespread news coverage with predictable results. Another teen in Victorville killed herself following the report of the girls’ suicides, and within the next seven months, sixteen other teen girls attempted suicide.
Suicide experts agree that there is rarely one single reason to explain why a person committed suicide. Suicide is usually the result of a complex set of factors that all contribute in one way or another to a person’s decision to commit suicide. Suicide memorials and contagion play just one small part in the potential suicide victim’s actions. At Issue: Teen Suicide examines some of the conditions that contribute to a person’s decision to commit suicide, as well as the prevalence of teen suicide.