11/01/2010 03:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Preventing Teen Suicide

What causes young people to decide to end their lives? That's an important question, of course, just as suicide prevention programs and crisis hot lines matter. But it's equally important to examine the environment, to map the terrain that almost all of our adolescents occupy, because that environment may be harmful -- and sometimes fatal -- for our children. I believe that some of our organizational structures, not just our behavior, are negative influences on children. My particular concern is the way we isolate our children by age and grade, from kindergarten through senior year of high school.

Teen SuicideI've spent the last week in and around Palo Alto, California, where five high school students have ended their lives violently in the past two years -- and more than a few others have been prevented from trying, often at the last minute, by observant adults. That community is in shock but is determined to find out all it can and make whatever changes are needed to keep tragedy away. Experts are conducting an in-depth 'forensic audit' of the community's strengths and weaknesses, with that report due in next spring.

Palo Alto is a high-achieving community, and many parents expect their children to do as well or better than they did. Many kids face the pressures so powerfully depicted in Race to Nowhere, the film I recently reviewed. In one sense, that film is a "call to inaction" because it says to schools and parents, "'Back off!' You are endangering your children's health."

No argument there, but backing off will not be enough, according to the film, the Youth Development Initiative and some community leaders in Palo Alto. They list 41 so-called "Developmental Assets" that, if present, provide the roots and life lines that are particularly important to those who are in the middle of huge life changes -- such as adolescence. These assets are both 'external' and 'internal,' but the list makes it clear that it takes a village to raise healthy, grounded children.

The list emphasizes 'constructive use of time,' which may be creative activities like music, theater or other arts; youth programs; religious community activity; and time at home and hanging out with friends 'with nothing special to do.'

In early September a teacher at Gunn High School, where the suicide victims were in school, wrote an open letter to the community. I urge you to read it.

The writer makes any number of critical points. Perhaps the most important is the observation that kids need to be connected, not 'independent,' whatever that may be.

"There's a basic truth of all our lives that we all sense, even if we can't prove it on a spreadsheet. If we know someone loves us, we have a clue to loving ourselves. If somewhere someone cares about us in such a way as we can't deny, we can care, too. If someone wants to listen to our feelings, we can begin to listen to them, too."

That's impossible to argue with: we all need to be loved and to be able to talk openly with people we trust, and a thread that runs through the list of Developmental Assets mentioned above is the importance of community, which I interpret to mean 'get outside of your peer/age group.'

Adolescence is often defined as the time when youth separate from their parents. They push away because that's what's expected and even encouraged. It's an important step toward independence, or so they are led to believe.

Unfortunately, that's a dangerous oversimplification. What does 'independent' really mean? Is that a worthy goal, or illusory? Isn't real maturity the healthy balance of independence and interdependence, and enough confidence in yourself so that you are able to form relationships with many others across a range of ages and interests? But how can you form those relationships if you've been told that you're now supposed to be 'independent'?

Unfortunately, 'independence' for today's adolescents turns out to mean that, once they turn their backs on their parents, they are left alone with their peers -- and no one else. Since Day One at school, they've been segregated by age, never encouraged or required to function beyond that artificial boundary. The very structure of most schools is pressuring them to be something that we, the adults, neither are nor wish to be.

Schools segregate children by age for the convenience of the adults who run the system, but we will have stronger, more resilient children when we encourage and reward cross-age activity as much as possible. We can make cross-age tutoring, group projects, community service with adults, and so forth part of the basic curriculum.

Organizing by age may make sense, but isolating by age is counter-productive and unnecessary. Instead, administrators should assign every new student, regardless of grade to one of three clubs, say Alpha, Beta or Gamma. Throughout the year these clubs would be competing, with so many points for Gamma when one of its members makes the honor roll, wins a varsity or JV letter, earns a part in the play or a position on the board of a student publication. In the spring, each club might put on a play, with the faculty and staff awarding one club the 'Oscar.' And so forth, until at year's end one club wins the annual trophy, its to defend for the year ahead. In a school run that way, students of all ages and grades get to know each other in the easiest way possible, through real activity. Across-grade hazing (by seniors toward freshmen, say) is less likely when every freshman belongs to a club that includes one-third of the school's seniors.

The way things are now, the typical adolescent is left with his or her peer group, and we all know intuitively, experientially and from Lord of the Flies just how unreliable peers and peer groups can be.

Because it takes a village to raise healthy children, we need to understand that human connections across a range of ages are as important as independence. Telling kids that they need to be 'independent' flies in the face of what their hearts tell them -- that they want to feel connected. We need to support connections beyond the peer group. And it's not enough to just 'encourage' these connections; let's rebuild our institutions so that they happen naturally. Our kids will be stronger and healthier.


John Merrow's new book, Below C Level, is now available on Amazon.
He blogs regularly at Taking Note, where this post originally appeared.