Cherokee High School welcomed experts and community members Wednesday night for a panel discussion on teen suicide and bullying, featuring internationally acclaimed author Jay Asher.
About 50 people attended the discussion at Cherokee High School, including as many as 35 students, who heard from counselors, psychologists, crisis intervention specialists and local law enforcement about how to handle situations of bullying and threats of suicide.
McGuinness said 20 percent of students surveyed said they had thought about or planned their own suicide.
“That’s a lot of kids,” she said. “I say this, not to scare you, but so you can realize that this isn’t an isolated situation we’re discussing. And we have to really work hard at changing the culture of our schools and building resiliency, and teach our kids how to talk.”
McGuinness said 80 percent of people who attempt suicide told someone they were thinking about doing it, but they died anyway.
“What does that mean? That we didn’t hear them or we didn’t believe them? Or we didn’t take it seriously or we thought they were trying to get attention?” McGuinness asked. “We have to understand that unless you’re a clinician … someone else needs to make that assessment. We have to take every threat seriously.”
Asher, author of the New York Times and international bestselling book “Thirteen Reasons Why,” spoke to students at the school earlier Wednesday, returning for the community panel at 6 p.m.
His book tells the fictional story of a teen girl who ended her life, but decided to record her story on cassette tapes before she died.
“I never thought I’d write a book like this,” Asher told the audience.
But when Asher’s teenaged relative attempted suicide, he said, the issue became an important topic to address as an author of books for teens.
“She and I talked a lot about what got her to that place, and she was dealing with a lot,” Asher explained. “I felt I really understood how she got there … and now she’s doing really well.”
Asher said many people have told him the book helped them get through their own struggles, and said suicide needs to be a topic students can talk about in a safe space.
He stressed people who commit suicide don’t fit a stereotype. Asher said teens can look like they’re doing great and still be suffering with depression, which is why discussion is so important.
Asher said being able to talk about suicide can help prevent many tragedies. He said “it’s worth it … it’s important,” and adults should not be afraid to talk about suicide.
Sgt. Charles Westbrook, coordinator of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office Crisis Intervention Team, said people who suffer from depression or other issues, which may lead them to believe suicide is the only escape, don’t realize their suffering is temporary.
“When you’ve got the flu and you’re really sick, and other people are around you, sometimes they don’t know exactly how you’re feeling,” he said. “That’s the way it is with depression. That’s the way it is when you start to feel suicidal.”
But Westbrook said, “Like the flu, it will get better.” He said suicide is a permanent decision for a temporary illness.
“If you reach out, you’ll find there will be people who will listen. Professionals and friends,” he said.
For many young people, pressure to be perfect can cause sadness or depression, the panel discussed.
Panel members agreed that the alternative to perfection is not failure, it’s authenticity.