Jane Leder’s book “Dead Serious” is a compendium of research, strategies, statistics, and stories about a topic that is frightening even to whisper: teen suicide.
The book is directed to teens who feel the pressures and vulnerabilities that might lead them to suicide, or who feel the loss of a loved one by suicide – accompanied by anger, guilt, or confusion.
Ms. Leder says up front: “it’s an intmate look at the lives of today’s teens, like you, the pressures you face, and the many possible combinations of reasons why a teen with her whole life ahead” takes her own life.
This is the second edition of “Dead Serious,” and in her introduction, Ms. Leder outlines some of the differences between the world of teens in 1987, when the first edition was published, and now. “There was no Internet. No social media. No cell phones. No texting. For the most part, gays and lesbians were in the closet. Certainly, there was little, if any, discussion about gender identity. Academic pressure was real but hadn’t reached today’s fever pitch. … Talking about sexual abuse, self-harming behavior, and suicide was taboo. … Today, the biggest surge in suicide rates is among young kids between the ages of 10 and 15.” This book is for them, their families, and those who love them.
Pressures that are daunting to adults can seem overwhelming to a teenager: loss of a parent through death or divorce; a move from the neighborhood or city; academic or peer pressure; bullying; and being “other” – LBGTQ or transgender.
Warning signs that someone may commit suicide are often clearer in hindsight, but Ms. Leder outlines some general warning signs: acting out – aggressive or hostile behavior; abuse of alcohol or drugs or both; passive behavior; changes in eating or sleeping habits; and fear of separation. To these she adds “specific warning signals” – abrupt changes in personality, sudden mood swings, risky behavior, poor grades and decreased interest in school, inability to concentrate, and loss or lack of friends. The “final distress signals” are loss of an important person or thing, hopelessness, obsession with death, and making a will or giving away possessions.
She urges readers to recognize these signs and to talk to the friend or to a mentor or a trusted adult who could reach out to the person. She stresses that a person who listens to a friend’s desperate talk is not responsible for that person’s problems but can be the first line of defense and try to make connections for the teen.
Each suicide leaves an estimated six or more people who loved the person and are struggling to understand why the person took his or her own life. These are the “suicide survivors.” Ms. Leder includes a letter from her mother that describes the anguish she still feels since her son – Ms. Leder’s brother – took his life on his 30th birthday.
Each chapter begins with a verse or two of a song that is likely familiar to most of the readers, most about personal pain. Chapter Six “Over the Edge: Interviews with Suicide Attempters” begins with an excerpt from “Breathe Me” by Sia: “I have done it again/I have been here many times before/hurt myself again today/And the worst part is there’s no one else to blame.”
Against the bleak backdrop of those chapter introductions and grim facts about teen suicides and attempts, Ms. Leder’s book holds things that, cumulatively, offer hope: resources for teens in crisis, strategies for teens whose friends may exhibit warning signs of suicide, and stories of and interviews with those who have made it through the dark path of contemplating or attempting suicide and are on the road to healing.
The final chapter, “Connections,” offers strategies on listening attentively, asking “good” questions and paying attention to non-verbal clues. Ms. Leder also highlights Sources of Strength a suicide-prevention program that helps empower students and local communities to identify young people at risk of suicide and offer them support to choose to live. She also lists suicide and other crisis hotlines, such as the Adolescent Suicide Helpline, the Trevor Project, and the National Child Abuse Hotline.