In a talk that left the audience requiring a pause of silence to regain composure before asking their burning questions, Kate Shand spoke about her son JP. Her book, Boy, was born out of JP’s decision to end his own life on 31 March 2011. JP was 14 years old.
Missing the Signs and the Missing Signs is the expressively apt title Shand uses to lead us through the horror of the all too real and yet insufficiently addressed reality of teenage suicide. One shivers as Shand explains that the leading cause of death in 15-25 year-old young men is not due to drunken car crashes or seemingly constant reckless behaviour, as is the stigma. The main cause of death in our young men is themselves. The implications of what that actually means make the head and heart churn.
Something Shand, chair Anthea Garman who lead the discussion, and the audience all agreed on is that schools can be horrible, destructive and extremely damaging places when we are at our most vulnerable and impressionable stage of life. Young children can be mean in harmful ways. This is not to damn either the bully or the bullied, but to note that this is a process of a still new and young soul learning, informing and forming who they are in this world. It starts with the teachers, observes Shand – “if they are respectful to the children, the children follow.”
Naturally shy, perceptive, quiet, considerate and “different, something I could never pinpoint”, JP found comfort in nature and being outdoors. Shand remembers the many nights he spent camping outdoors or on their roof so he could sleep under the stars. This sensitive soul with low self-esteem was subjected to criminal public humiliation at school – being bullied by peers is one thing, being bullied by your teacher is even uglier. One unfathomable incident saw JP’s teacher ask the class to vote on who they would not want to be in their class. The results were tallied and JP was publically informed he was the ‘winner’. The psychological and emotional impact of this on an adult would be damaging – it’s affect on a 13 year old is… Lethal.
JP started self-medicating for his troubles by smoking marijuana. A set-up by a classmate led to JP being arrested by the police and humiliated in full-view of all his peers. The parents were neither informed nor consulted to try to resolve the ‘minor’ problem of a rebellious adolescent before calling the cops on a teenager. The girl who had helped to orchestrate this was dead by her own hand three months after JP.
While still illegal, dagga smokers have the reputation of being happy-go-lucky ‘chilled-out’ hippies. Shand explains a complex sense of relief that “it was only dagga… that the stoners I knew didn’t seem capable of doing much, let alone killing themselves… that it wasn’t hard drugs and there was time.” While marijuana can be dismissed in the face of the scarier drugs available, it should not be mistaken to be innocuous. For people with mood disorders or even just certain personality types, dagga can exacerbate anxiety and suicidal tendencies – some individuals report extreme paranoia, aggravated depression and suicidal feelings. “While I was dilly-dallying about what to do, JP had already made up his mind.”
Maybe the hardest thing to wrap our heads around in the face of the unthinkable is that there is no ‘cookie-cutter mould’ – every child and every situation is unique. After her traumatic journey of which writing BOY was a corner-stone of healing and processing, Shand says she doesn’t really have any concrete advice for parents. “We want the signs to be clear. They are not. They are but a feeling that cannot be articulated.” Shand says if she could do anything differently she would listen to her intuition and act. She urges that if you think there is a problem, there is one. “Yes, we had warning signs,” she says, “but we just didn’t know what they were leading to.”
It is in the tummy-churn, the instinctual whispers that so easily get lost in the business of life and being human. If you feel it, and especially if you see vacant “shark-eyes” staring from your child, Shand’s advice is clear – “Pay attention to that tummy churn and go home and fight for your child’s life.” Seek help – never be afraid to seek help. Her daughter’s advice is something concrete to hold onto. You NEED to be open and honest with your children. “You know like the safe-sex talk you give your kids? It should be like that. A sort-of safe-living talk,” is the profoundly wise young advice.
Children have the complex emotions adults do, but without the life-experience or knowledge of how to process or articulate them yet. Communication is key. Do not hide your children from reality by telling them life is perfect, or worse that it’s easy – life is hard and it is your parents who are the foundation of how you learn to deal with and live through the tough times we all experience. The mother of Dylan, one of the ‘Columbine Killing boys’ was asked what she would say to her son. “I would ask him to forgive me… For being his mother and not knowing… He was in so much pain and I didn’t see it.”
To call her brave is to attempt to describe the tip of an iceberg – but it is her courage in sharing her harrowing story that transforms the utterly unbearable into a hand to hold and help guide us through the dark times and remind us that light will return.
As I pause to wipe away more tears, a large ‘smiley’ that the man in front of me is drawing catches my eye. Next to it is written “You are not alone.” I look at my computer screen. The last line quotes Shand. It reads: “You are not alone =)”.