LOS ANGELES – With the new school year about to begin, it won’t be long before students in Japan and the United States find themselves under the gun to excel academically. How they handle parental and peer pressure to do so can literally make the difference between life and death.
Although the Cabinet Office found that the threat of suicide among the young in Japan tends to peak shortly after the end of spring and summer holidays, the threat knows no season. That’s because anxiety and depression, along with other mental disorders, persist throughout the year.
Concerns about university admissions and career choices help explain why some high school students in Japan take their own lives rather than live with shame in failing to meet expectations. But children between the ages of 10 and 15 are not immune. In fact, this group most often shows no overt signs of committing suicide, making them the most vulnerable to intervention.
In the U.S., one in 12 high school students has attempted suicide, while nearly one in six has seriously contemplated taking their own lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But unlike Japan, suicide in this age group shows no clear seasonal pattern.
What stands out, however, is that despite the existence of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, resulting in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year. About 157,000 young people in that age group receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries at emergency departments across the country.
As in Japan, academic problems account in part for the rising suicide rate, but so does bullying in both countries. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, about one out of every four students reported being bullied. At last count, that brought the total to 12.7 million cases out of 50 million students in the U.S. That compares with 70,000 cases of bullying reported out of 16 million students in Japan.
With suicide on the rise, teachers and parents have unique roles to play. Teachers can strive to establish a trusting relationship with all their students. For example, in the process of casual conversation before classes begin, observant teachers often spot signs that warrant referral to school psychologists or other community professionals. Parents can become more aware of how the best of intentions can backfire. For example, they should refrain from setting unrealistically high academic standards for their children, which unwittingly set them up for failure and bullying.
In the U.S., all states have statutes identifying persons who are required to report suspected child maltreatment to designated agencies. These laws should be amended to include signs of self-destructive behavior. The establishment in Japan of a hotline open 24/7 for children and parents is a step in the right direction because of the culture of shame and the fear of stigmatization that act as a barrier to appropriate treatment.
Suicide is always a tragedy, but never more so when it involves young people with their whole lives ahead of them.
Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in Los Angeles. He writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week.