Principal: Suicidal kids falling beneath radar
Children under the weight of suicidal ideation are at greater risk of going unnoticed because teachers are less able to identify adverse behavioural change in online classes.
That observation comes in the wake of the hanging of Ackeem Williams, a 16-year-old boy in Brown’s Hall, St Catherine, on Saturday.
Jamaica’s schools were shuttered in March 2020 to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Dozens of schools have reopened since a November pilot but the majority remain closed.
The lack of in-person interaction has been blamed for learning loss but teachers play an outsize role as social workers and therapists.
Difficult to offer intervention
Patrick Phillips, principal of Enid Bennett High, where Ackeem was enrolled, said the guidance counsellor has reached out to parents since the incident and will be meeting with them shortly.
Phillips said that schools have found it difficult to offer intervention during online sessions. Face-to-face classes are preferred, said Phillips, because “sometimes we can see what is not said”. He also said that remote psychosocial intervention was less effective than in-person interaction. He said that Enid Bennett High, formerly Bog Walk High, had not been able to conduct adequate assessment to provide emotional support amid the pandemic.
There have been several anecdotal reports of child suicides in 2020. Senior Superintendent Stephanie Lindsay, the chief police spokesperson, told The Gleaner on Monday that last year’s suicide statistics were not immediately available.
Peter Queensborough, a neighbour of Ackeem’s, is still baffled at the teen’s suspected suicide. He recounted how he fell, in shock, and hit his head when he got the news of the boy’s tragic passing.
“Mi knock out,” he told The Gleaner while holding his head in despair.
The 16-year-old was found hanging from the ceiling of the house where he was staying after leaving his mother’s home in Lauriston with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic.
Queensborough remembers hollering to get the boy’s attention on Saturday morning but got no answer.
“It just hard. Him coulda just come and call me,” he said, sobbing.
But there appeared to be ominous signs that Ackeem was troubled, as his uncle, Hilly Christian, recounted that, two days prior to his death, the teenager said he had been putting aside money for his burial.
That apparent cry for help drew no intervention.
Shakeem Allen, Ackeem’s friend from Enid Bennett High, told The Gleaner that the schoolboy had suffered mood swings, veering between eerie silence and aggression, over the last week.
“We see him a move a little different lately … like something a bother him, but him naw talk to nobody,” said the 18-year-old, who Ackeem called ‘Big Bredda’.
Ackeem’s sister Nickley Allen said that she had considered his most recent behaviour odd, as he ghosted past her the night before his death. She said she was shocked at the manner in which he walked by her without acknowledging her presence - a sharp change from his usual self. Allen said that she had offered him dinner on Friday night but he refused it.
Dr Donovan Thomas, founder and president of Choose Life International, is advising teachers to be less judgemental and more caring.
The local suicidologist is pleading with parents whose children may seem suicidal to do the following:
1. Do not say, ‘Go ahead and try.’ Every threat must be taken seriously.
2. Persons with suicidal ideation ought to seek professional help.
3. Encourage positive lifestyle changes
4. Remove objects that may be potential tools of suicide.
5. Help children to devise a safety plan that will distract them from the suicide plan.
6. Discuss with children what they should do if they feel suicidal. That may be to call somebody or give himself a treat.
7. Be committed to supporting over the long haul.