Terry O'Neill: Youth suicide calls for careful response

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By Terry O'Neill

Amanda Todd’s suicide touched many in our community, and rightly so. If it’s true that the death of even one person represents a loss to all humanity, then the death of a young person such as Amanda amid such troubling circumstances might be seen as an even greater loss.

That being said, we must be careful in how we respond to this case. Yes, it should serve as a clarion call for greater awareness of the impact of cyberbullying. On this point, and on the related issue of what can be done to stem the tide of cyberbullying, everyone seems to agree.

At least as important, however, is the overall issue of youth suicide for whatever reason. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teens after motor-vehicle accidents, according to this online source. Furthermore, this page from the Canadian Children’s Rights Council’s website has some important information about how common the phenomenon is and what can be done about it.

Interestingly, another page from the same site contains the following declaration: “Curriculum or school-based programs which focus on increasing awareness, risk identification and community resources are not effective, and may, in fact, stimulate imitative suicidal behavior…”

This statement leads directly to an event of some interest that took place in Vancouver earlier this month, and that was the provincial government’s Erase Bullying conference—the reporting of which tended to focus on the fact that officials with the Ministry of Education had not invited Amanda Todd’s mother to attend “over fears her presence might upset some of the event’s young speakers".

I think the ministry made a good decision. Not to diminish the sadness associated with Amanda’s death, I am worried that there has been altogether too much publicity surrounding her suicide. Talk-show hosts, politicians, community leaders and legions of social-science experts have all weighed in, as is their right. But it is also their responsibility to weigh their statements and actions carefully, with their primary concern being the effect of those statements and actions on young people. The “contagion” aspect of suicide is real and everyone in a leadership position must recognize this.

My thoughts regarding this are also guided by something the great American essayist Peggy Noonan once noted when discussing unmarried mothers: “That which we celebrate, we encourage.”

With this in mind, I think we need to be cautious about the memorial and birthday tribute for Amanda. Yes, her family and friends have every right to mourn her passing. Nevertheless, such an event has the potential to add fuel to a fire which, I fear, has already grown far too hot.

Terry O'Neill is a Coquitlam city councillor. The article originally appeared on his blog.

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