INDIANAPOLIS — Zionsville Community Schools Superintendent Scott Robison warned parents Monday that several students had reposted a certain video on their social media accounts.
In the 8-minute video posted on Google+, an eighth-grade student from Zionsville West Middle School discussed his thoughts on suicide.
The night of April 25, the boy hanged himself.
The day after he died at, a 15-year-old girl, another Zionsville student, attempted suicide by overdose, according to a Zionsville Police Department report.
Police said they did not know if the youngsters knew each other or if the second teen had seen the video, but school officials notified parents Monday of the video.
“The school-parent partnership calls me to bring this to your attention in the event that you wish to have a conversation about it with your child,” Robison wrote in an email to parents. The email included a link to suicide prevention information on the school website.
Police and school officials have released little information about either incident. Calls to school officials were not returned.
The episode highlights the complex role social media can play, and the fears it raises, as psychologists, parents and school officials grapple with depression among increasingly web savvy youths. Messages posted on social media have been known to thwart some suicides as adults and others intervene, but some experts say such public messages also may prompt other youths to consider taking their own lives.
“The thing we always worry a little bit about is a certain sense of contagion,” said Dr. David Dunn, a professor of child neurology and psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine. “There may be an increase in the number of suicide attempts after one has been publicized in a particular school system.”
Dr. Adelaide Robb, director of psychiatry research at the Children’s National Medical Center, said seeing someone talk about suicide on social media networks — and go through with it — can give permission for others to do the same.
And with an absence of restraints on the Web, it is up to parents to be vigilant.
Quick action needed
Psychologists, such as University of Indianapolis professor Katherine Kivisto, said suicide threats posted on social media rarely are false alarms.
Adult intervention needs to be immediate, especially during the critical time right after the post was made.
“The most important thing to do would be to reach out to an adult and for that adult to then go and speak with the child who is making the suicidal threat,” said Indianapolis psychologist Robbi Crain. “The key thing in responding to those suicidal threats or talks is not to overreact, but also not to under-react.”
Kivisto said talking to a suicidal student will make them less likely to attempt suicide.
Social media networks also take steps to address suicide threats posted on their sites.
Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld said that when someone reports a suicide threat, the reporting person is sent information on where to turn for help. Similar information also is sent to the person who posted the message.
Facebook users, Steinfeld added, make up a huge, online “neighborhood watch” that can be a first line of defense.
In New Jersey, a teenager posted a photo of the George Washington Bridge in November along with a statement saying he was thinking of jumping. A concerned friend contacted police and port officers, who spoke with the teen, according to a CNN story.
About a year ago, a California teen helped prevent a suicide by a New Jersey girl, who posted a threat on her blog. According to a USA TODAY story, the California girl, who knew only the other girl’s first name, called police and a local suicide hotline, launching a chain of events that led to the rescue.
A cry for help
According to January data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 24 and results in about 4,600 deaths annually.
While suicide rates among teens have been lower than they were in the 1990s, statistics show a gradual increase over the past decade.
From 1990 to 2000, suicide rates had dropped from 12.5 suicide deaths per 100,000 people to 10.4, according to the CDC. They gradually rose over the 10 years that followed, until rates reached 12.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2010.
One explanation is that teens are at an age when parts of the brain that control impulsive behavior are not fully developed yet. They’re more likely to act on a spur of the moment without realizing the consequences, said Dunn, the IU professor.
They’re also learning what it’s like to be in somebody else’s shoes, said Mimi Brittingham, a therapist at Meridian Youth Psychiatric Center on the Far Northside.
“Sometimes, they over-identify with the angst of a friend, with the problems of a friend,” she said.
Experts say teens post suicidal thoughts on social media to let people know they’re in pain. Such statements are a plea for someone to listen.
Suicide warning signs include drug and alcohol use, change in eating and sleeping habits, verbal or physical aggressiveness, and physical pain, says the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
These don’t necessarily mean a suicide is impending, Crain said.
“But something is going on that needs to be talked about,” she said. “Talk about the feelings, talking about anything, really. Just get them talking.”
Contributing: Tim Evans and Justin Mack of The Star