Recently updated book attempts to break the cycle of teen suicide.
Jane Mersky Leder first wrote Dead Serious in 1987, one of the first books written exclusively for young adults addressing teen suicide and depression. This year, she felt compelled to issue a second edition, Dead Serious, Breaking The Cycle of Teen Suicide — completely revised and updated from the original.
“I first wrote that book in 1987 as an attempt to better understand my brother’s suicide,” says Leder, who was born and raised in the Detroit area and has ties to Temple Israel and Temple Kol Ami. “I didn’t tell the story in the first edition. I do in this one. It took me some time to write about it.”
For the original, Leder spoke to teens, parents and siblings. The book was named a YASD (Young Adult Services Division) best Book for Young Adults from the American Library Association.
“I felt I had put the topic in my back pocket. I never thought I would be looking at the topic again three decades later,” she says. “I read an article about the surge in suicides for kids in middle school, and I flipped. I was stunned. I knew I had to get back on the saddle.”
The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014, for the first time surpassing the death rate in that age group from car crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For this edition of the book, Leder interviewed new teens and experts. “So many subjects were new. There have been so many changes in the last 30 years,” she says. “In the 1980s, there was no web, no social media, no Facebook, no Instagram, no publicly discussed gender identity issues. The list goes on and on. It’s a completely different world.”
She decided that her job in this book was to talk about things that never change, the myths related to suicide, for example. And she wanted to tackle new topics like bullying, the situation of LGBTQ teens, and accredited suicide prevention programs in school.
“Today’s teens absolutely have it harder,” she says. “Bullying has changed. Now, girls have jumped in — not physically but emotionally — which can be much more painful. Because of social media, this barrage is 24/7. Kids are no longer safe from bullies once they get though the front door of their houses. It’s nonstop. Kids can’t stop reading texts or Facebook; technology is wrapped around their necks like umbilical cords.”
The stresses on LGBTQ teens are even greater, she says. “They have to worry about being outed when they’re not ready or possibly thrown out of the house. Unfortunately, the attempted suicide rate for LGBTQ teens is four to six times greater as are their risks of homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and prostitution, which some turn to as a means of survival.”
Academics, Leder says, more than any other factor, puts inordinate pressure on today’s teens. “Pressure to get into college is No. 1 on the list of what makes them go off the rails,” she says. “This is the age of anxiety, and many teens have anxiety disorders or depression.”
Most teens who attempt suicide are depressed. Eighty percent go undiagnosed or untreated, she says. About 20 percent of all teens experience depression before they reach adulthood.
As to the increased number of suicide attempts among middle school kids, “the jury is still out as to why these kids are much more fragile,” she says.
“Nobody knows for sure. There is probably a combination of reasons, but I think girls are going through puberty earlier — 12- and 13-year-old girls look like and are being treated like women. That must take a toll.”
Dead Serious also addresses suicide prevention programs in schools. “Instead of a top down approach, it’s now bottoms up. Students drive the train as peer mentors. It’s not their job to save someone but to serve as a connection to a trusted adult. The teens involved are very committed and very knowledgeable.”
This new edition of Dead Serious gives voice to teens who bravely share their stories of suicide and depression while top experts from around the country provide commentary on these issues. While the book is written for teens, it’s also a valuable resource for teachers and parents.
Leder says there are a few key takeaways she hopes teens will learn from reading her book.
“First, that talking about suicide does not make things worse. What makes things worse is not talking. Suffering kids want to know someone is there, that someone is listening and someone cares.
“Second,” she adds, “it’s important for everybody to understand that it’s not their job to prevent someone from taking his or her life. You can only be a friend and serve as a conduit to a trusted adult who can direct someone to the help they need.
“Finally, it is a teen’s job to break the code of silence. Even if your friend asks you not to tell anyone, you have to tell somebody. It’s better to risk your friend being angry with you than losing your friend forever.”
Jackie Headapohl Managing Editor