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You matter

Dan Richards
Dan Richards

Before we go another step, I want to make sure that you know that you matter. You are funny and smart and people care about you. If you were gone, you would leave a hole in someone's life.

Our community lost a 16-year-old to suicide last week.

My thoughts on this topic jump back and forth, from the present to ten years ago, to my own adolescent years. I remember feeling like I was drowning, like everything was just pulling me down. Fortunately for me, the doorbell rang at just the right moment: a lifeline to pull me back up.

Ten years ago, after we lost a high school student to suicide, I stood in front of a group of teens and told them to reach out to each other and to their parents and teachers.

Drowning doesn't always look like drowning

Depression is like drowning. We think about the drowning man as the one splashing and hollering and waving his arms. The truth is when people are actually drowning, they are more likely to be silent and still. All of their energy is focused on getting one more breath and staying above the water for one more second.

If you're at risk for drowning, splash and make noise, Talk to someone. As long as you are reaching out, there's hope. When you pull yourself in, that's when you sink.

Teen suicide can be contagious. It can look like a way out. It can look like everyone suddenly cares about the victim. There's an outpouring of love and compassion that might feel like just what you need.

On the other hand, a kid who reaches out for help about suicide might be hushed or quieted or ignored. We don't tend to believe the worst can happen. But it can.

We need to let go of the stigma surrounding depression. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 13% of individuals between the ages of 12 and 17 will experience a major depression. That's more than 1 in 10. It means in a typical classroom of 30 students, three of them might be struggling with depression. The thing about depression is, it makes you feel alone even when you're not.

It's okay to talk about how you're feeling. I remember a time, only a few years ago, when a kid we know told us he'd been hospitalized for attempting suicide. My first thought was: that isn't something you go around telling people. But why not? You wouldn't be embarrassed if you went to the doctor for a broken arm. That's what they're there for. Seeking help for a mental illness should be just the same.

As for those of us on the outside, we see the kid who is splashing and calling for help —whether it is through acting out at home or in the classroom. We need to see the one who feels like he can handle it himself or doesn't want to be a bother to anyone.

Bullying doesn't always look like bullying

The other half of this story is the bullying that may have led to Dan's death.

It's too easy today to sit in your living room or reach for your phone and criticize; your targets may never know who you are. You don't have to see their faces or notice their pain. That makes bullying different than it used to be. It's not the stereotypical biggest guy picking on the little guy.

Bullying today often doesn't look like the movies. It's not about being shoved in a locker or someone stealing your lunch money. It's the snide comments as you pass by and the anonymous postings on social media about your hair or glasses or how you don't fit in.

Cyber-bullying can stay with a person. It's often there to go back to and reread and dwell on. It can make your world seem small and dark.

Helping doesn't always feel like helping.

What you say matters. I had promised you more on swearing this week, and I'll get back to that, but the crux of the issue is that your words matter. You have the power to lift someone up a little or push them down.

The small things you did in the past two weeks may have made more of a difference than you know.

If you held the hand of a teenager or patted them on the shoulder, you mattered.

If you handed someone a kleenex and showed them it's okay to cry, you mattered.

If you kept your eye on a kid at risk, you mattered.

If you provided a place for students to gather and talk and cry together, you mattered.

If you stopped someone on the street and told them you care, you mattered.

If you walked into a funeral home and told a grieving parent or friend a story about their loved one, you mattered.

Dan, you matter.

From the looks of the overflowing funeral home and the cars lining the streets for blocks around, you mattered more than you knew.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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