We should put the mental health of our children on the national agenda. That's where it belongs.
In the winter of 1999, our middle daughter was diagnosed as having an eating disorder and found to be clinically depressed and suicidal. We were stunned. Breathless. How could this daughter—athlete, musician, beauty, and great soul— possibly be dealing with all this? How could it be happening to our family? After all, I am a superintendent of schools, and my wife is a special education teacher often mistaken for Mother Earth and all things good and nurturing.
Not our family. Not our daughter.
Yet, less than two months after that diagnosis, in spite of what we thought was close scrutiny (we never left her alone), she tried to commit suicide.
Nearly five years later, we are all still working hard to deal with these realities. We know how fortunate we are to have all three of our daughters, and how very special it is to be able to watch Rachel grow as a young woman at college. We are lucky to be able to talk with her daily, and to say to her, “We love you.”
Many families are not so fortunate. That is the point of writing this and being so public about our family’s tragedy. We have learned through it about the stigma of mental- health issues, about the lack of public awareness and understanding, and about the great need that exists in schools and communities across the country. These issues cross all races, genders, and communities.
I remember, growing up as a kid, that John Wayne could not say he had cancer. He had to say he had the “Big C.” And history remembers Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, short- term candidate for vice president of the United States—until it came out that he suffered from depression. There are many less famous folks out there who have suffered, in depression, not just from a disease, but from the inability to talk about it publicly, or perhaps even with friends and family.
Our daughter, though, is a strong soul, a brave soul, who said that we needed to speak out as a family. If we don’t talk publicly about this, she said, who would? If other families came to understand that this could happen to us, wouldn’t that knowledge help them seek help? And if other despairing students could hear Rachel’s voice, might they not also live to tell others?
How do we as teachers, administrators, parents, and neighbors deal with a reality that is the third leading cause of death among teenagers? How do schools deal with the children in their classrooms who suffer each moment in silence and in pain? These and so many other questions were part of what we asked ourselves before Rachel spoke out to her classmates in the winter of 2001.
She had worked hard, through her therapy and her own strength and will, to recover from the depression that prompted her suicide attempt. She took her medications, and practiced cognitive-therapy techniques. She became captain of her softball team, and continued singing in the top comprehensive choral group in her high school. After early-decision acceptance to college, Rachel, still struggling each day with the continuing problem of depression, turned her attention to others.
When she stood in front of her senior class in January 2001, Rachel asked her classmates to look at her as they never had before, to see beyond the smiles, the good humor, and the always-ready-to-party persona they had known for years. She wanted them to see, in a person much like themselves, a silent well of despair. The gathering of 500 seniors was silent except for a few sniffles. Rachel asked if they knew what it was like to be sad—not the way most teenagers speak about it, but sad to the point of not being able to get out of bed, or make a decision, or of thinking that life was hopeless and no one cared. She told them she would gladly have endured the kind of sadness that popular music and teenage chums talk about. But hers was different. Then Rachel asked her classmates to look at one another for a moment and think about whether they really knew their friends and acquaintances. Those who felt the kind of pain she had, Rachel said, should know that they are not alone. Then she asked her classmates to care about one another.
Rachel also spoke to the junior class that day. When she finished both presentations, students flocked to her, crying, saying thanks, and just wanting to hold on to someone.
From her personal crisis, Rachel had begun a story of hope.
Since then, Rachel has spoken at a state PTA convention, on Philadelphia television stations, to community groups, and at other schools. She has talked to many who call her on the phone, in need of someone to talk to who has gone through what they are suffering. They need to hear that it can be all right. Parents call our house, too, mostly to speak to my wife. They talk about sons or daughters who are cutting, crying, or hiding.
All Cherry Hill, N.J., high schools now have Yellow Ribbon clubs, which are groups dedicated to suicide awareness and prevention. We also are working with the University of Pennsylvania to implement a pilot program on middle school resiliency. Our middle school children have a daily advisory period, with a small group of children, and our board has set a goal of creating smaller learning environments over time. A mental-health task force has sponsored community discussions, dances, and other events, and is now working to implement a “teen screen” program on emotional health and risk factors.
All this has happened as we have mourned the suicide of seven teenagers over the past five years. Our schools have done much; we need to do more. Our community has done much; we need to do more. And our schools and community are not that different from others across the country. Issues of teenage depression and suicide occur throughout our society.
In Cherry Hill, we have tried to talk openly. We have tried to be proactive.
Turning away from suicide, our daughter taught us about life.
I am sad to write that in March, yet again, we had to deal with another suicide. This death was of a 14-year-old middle school student.
The horrifying loss of one so young always leads to a search for answers. Did we miss warning signs at school? Did we find the right balance between preparing for daily lessons, giving standardized tests, and creating a caring environment? Was there something going on at school, or in his life, that precipitated this boy’s suicide? There are so many questions, with so few clear answers.
We want to be able, at a time like this, to explain the cause or point the finger of blame. But seldom is this possible. Who can ever really know the pain this young student was going through? Yet, we try to find answers to our questions by continuing to talk openly and candidly.
My daughter Rachel has spoken out, and we believe she has made a difference. Sometimes, I have joined her at the podium, talking about her life and about our lives as a family. I get to hug her in public and tell her how much we love her. We are fortunate for that. But for a few seconds, a few changes in circumstance, we would not have Rachel with us. For our family, and for all those who care about children, we as a society and as school people must get beyond the stigma associated with mental-health issues. We have work to do.
The country is preoccupied now with the No Child Left Behind Act, struggling to understand its educational impact and its inconsistencies. Yet there are more pressing youth-related issues we need to talk about more frequently. I encourage President Bush, the U.S. secretary of education, and the leaders of school systems across the country to put the mental health of our children on the national agenda. That’s where it belongs.
Morton Sherman is the superintendent of schools in Cherry Hill, N.J.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2004 edition of Education Week as A Story of Hope