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How the way we talk about suicide can prevent it from happening again

Editor's Note: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. The Columbia Protocol, referenced below, has more information on the right questions to ask.

Two members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas community have died by apparent suicide. One of them was a survivor of last year’s mass shooting who reportedly struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber of the Columbia Lighthouse Project and Ryan Petty, whose daughter was killed at Parkland, join William Brangham to discuss the troubling phenomenon of teen suicide.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been another painful week for the community at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

    There have been two apparent suicides within a week. One was a sophomore who has not yet been identified.

    The other was 19-year-old Sydney Aiello, who was a senior last year when a mass shooting took the lives of 17 of her fellow students. Sydney's mother said her daughter was friends with one of the students who died that day, struggled with survivor's guilt, and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    The school district and the community are working to provide more treatment, counseling and outreach for anyone in need. And it has once again raised questions about what can be done to help young people cope.

    That is the focus of our Education segment this week, with William Brangham. And a warning: We will be discussing a disturbing subject with explicit questions.

  • William Brangham:

    The news from Parkland this week has clearly shaken many in the Florida community and elsewhere in the country, and it's led to even greater efforts to help those who are struggling.

    We should also say from the outset that suicide is preventable. Suicidal thoughts have complex roots and often multiple causes. We're going to talk about all of that in a moment.

    We also want to let people know that, if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, there are places to call and to text where you can get immediate help. We will post that information on screen during this conversation.

    But I'm joined now by Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber. She's a psychiatrist at Columbia University, and she directs the Lighthouse Project there to prevent suicide. And Ryan Petty, his 14-year-old daughter, Alaina, was murdered in the shooting last year in Parkland. He then started the Walk Up Foundation to help reduce school violence and help those at risk.

    Both have been working with the Parkland community recently.

    And I welcome you both to the "NewsHour."

    Dr. Posner Gerstenhaber, first to you.

    Many people are anguished over the news that has come out of Parkland about these two young people. And, obviously, people are connecting it to the tragedy that happened there last year.

    How do you want kids and parents all over the country to be thinking about this, to be processing this? What do you want them to know?

  • Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber:

    Well, let me start with the good news.

    Suicide is preventable. There is help. There is hope. And there is treatment. And many people who suffer in silence just don't know that. And we often make the mistake and think that people suffering in silence will come to us and they will know when to reach out for help.

    And they often don't. And what we know is, in general, the biggest cause of suicide is a treatable medical illness called depression. But we don't think of that like we think of cancer, right? We wouldn't ever hear the word choice when it comes to cancer.

    And then when you add on top of that these horrific traumas and potentially PTSD, then we know that risk for feeling like people want to end their lives just goes up that much more.

    But as I said, we can actually save lives. And how do we begin to do that? You know that 50 percent of people who die by suicide have seen their primary care doctor the month before they die?

    We should be asking questions the way we monitor for blood pressure. Many adolescents who show up to the emergency department who've tried to take their own lives are not there for psychiatric reasons.

    But you know what? We know even that's not enough. Many people, particularly vulnerable people, will never even get close to a doctor. So we know that we also have to find them where they live. We have to put the method of identification to find people who suffer in silence in the hands of everybody, loved ones, parents, teachers, coaches, so we can actually find the people suffering in silence before it's too late and connect them to the lifesaving care that they need.

  • William Brangham:

    Ryan Petty, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how things are in Parkland right now.

    I know that you were at one of the — one of these meetings that happened after the most recent loss of this — one of the students there. Can you just tell us how the community is responding?

  • Ryan Petty:

    You know, the community feels apprehensive at this point.

    I think this is yet a new trauma that we're experiencing in the aftermath, just a little over a year from when we lost 17 souls due to the unfortunate school shooting.

    So, I think the community still is uncertain about what's next. There's clearly trauma that hasn't been dealt with. And the community needs a bit of hope and reassurance at this point.

  • William Brangham:

    And the things that Dr. Posner Gerstenhaber is talking about, these techniques that she has helped develop — and I know you have been trying to promote within the community — to get parents and other people around young people to reach out to them, are people receptive to that idea?

  • Ryan Petty:

    You know, unfortunately, it seems like, sometimes, it takes a tragedy to get people to be ready to listen.

    The good news is — and Dr. Posner gave us great news — we can — this is a treatable illness. And the right information, we can help those who are hurting, those that are suffering, oftentimes in silence, not knowing how to get help that they need themselves.

    We have the tools, with the Columbia Protocol, to be able to identify those that are at risk. And then, of course, there's access to resources, and we can talk more about that.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Posner Gerstenhaber, I know you have developed protocol, the Columbia Protocol, which is a series of questions that you argue anyone can really ask someone who might be considering suicide.

    What are you hoping to elicit with those questions?

  • Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber:

    So, these few simple questions help us for the first time identify who is at imminent risk, and helps us identify the important suicidal thoughts and suicidal actions that we need to ask.

    For example, have you thought about ending your life, and, if so, have you had any intention to act on those thoughts? Have you started to do anything, prepared to do anything to end your life, like collecting pills, writing a note? Things we know we need to ask to connect the right people to care that need it.

    One of the things that can be really helpful in these times of tragedy are student-led and community-led interventions. And we know that, in addition to the potency of this method or this language, having a common language to put around these issues is an intervention, in and of itself. It builds cohesion. It builds connectedness.

  • William Brangham:

    Ryan Petty, I'm curious to ask you.

    One of the concerns I know, whenever suicide occurs, is that there is a great deal of concern about how we talk about suicide and the way — the terms we use, the way in which we talk about it, for fear that it might — I think the term of art is that it might be contagious.

    Is that something that you talk to community members in Parkland about?

  • Ryan Petty:

    We did.

    And I think it's particularly important to understand and to be responsible, to have the media be responsible with how it's reported and how we talk about it on social media.

    But, you know, what Dr. Posner just told us is — should be music to all of our ears. We can all be part of the solution. We can all be involved. And it requires us to talk about it. It requires us to recognize that there shouldn't be a stigma associated with this.

    This is a disease, just like any other. We wouldn't be afraid to talk about somebody with cancer or somebody with a broken limb. We would help them seek treatment and get them the help that they need. And so we need to treat this the same way. We need to be willing to have those conversations.

    And the beauty of the protocol, the Columbia Protocol, that Dr. Posner and her colleagues have put together is that anyone can be involved. So, as a community, we don't have to sit back and feel powerless. We can feel like we're part of a solution.

    And I heard her say that a minute ago. And it really does help in our own personal trauma and healing.

  • William Brangham:

    Ryan Petty and Dr. Kelly Posner, thank you both very much for your time, and thank you for your work.

  • Ryan Petty:

    Thank you.

  • Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber:

    Grateful to be here.

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