10/17/2012 09:29 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

Amanda Todd Suicide: Schools Need Support Systems, Too


When I watched the recent movie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, my first reaction was "Where are the FROGS?"

Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), directed Stephen Chbosky based on his epistolary novel by the same name, details the journey of a shy freshman boy named Charlie who struggles with severe depression and social isolation. On his first day of school, he undergoes freshman hazing rituals and eats lunch alone. Even after he discovers the friendship of two seniors, his battles with "seeing things," specifically visions of his sexually abusive Aunt Helen who passed away, go undetected. At the movie's climax, Charlie is so distraught by the graduation of his only friends that he attempts suicide.

Yet as I watched the movie, I realized that many of these turns for the worse could have been prevented.

At Conestoga High School, our Peer Mediation team, or FROGS, Friends Reaching Out and Guiding Students, serves an integral function in watching over at-risk students. Over a hundred of diverse and friendly students wear bright yellow shirts on the first few days of school, guide new students around the building, and especially watch over the freshmen to make sure that no one is sitting alone. If Charlie had gone to a school with FROGS and a Peer Mediation team, he would not have been sitting alone on the first day of school in the cafeteria. He would have been surrounded by mentors, guides and friends. His transition process would have been eased.

The recent suicide of 15-year-old Vancouver teen Amanda Todd proves the need for expansive, all-purpose school support systems such as the Peer Mediation Team. Todd was repeatedly harassed after an older man in an Internet chat room plastered a picture of her breasts on Facebook. It led to relentless cyberbullying. She became depressed, and in a video posted September 7, she admitted that she tried to kill herself twice and cuts herself repeatedly. Just weeks later, she was found hanged in her home.

Suicide attempts, depression and mental illness in general are regarded with a sort of stigma in our society. But the truth is, it's not a rarity for teenagers today to struggle with mental health issues and bullying. Schools, educators and administrators have a responsibility to provide guidance and a safe environment with mentors and friends to watch over at-risk teens. We need support systems to prevent these tragedies.

Conestoga's Peer Mediation Team is by no means perfect. As a Peer Mediator, I freely admit it myself. Students still struggle with mental illness, with depression, with stress. But because our network ensures that incoming freshmen and transfer students do not feel alone on the first few days, but rather are surrounded by friendly FROGS, our atmosphere is much warmer and much more welcoming.

The guidance doesn't end there. Freshmen and new students are assigned a FROG to serve as their link for the rest of the school year. Peer Mediators are encouraged to build a rapport with the students they mentor, to ensure their safety and health. If ever a problem is detected, guidance counselors, psychologists and parents would immediately be contacted and treatment sought. If Charlie from Perks of Being a Wallflower had a Peer Mediator whose phone number he could have called, who would have said to him early on, "I'm here for you," perhaps his narrow scrape with death could have been prevented.

Similarly, I am shocked that none of the schools that Amanda Todd attended had any support system that would have recognized the severity of her depression and the dangers of the cyberbullying. If support, help, mentorship and guidance had been offered earlier, perhaps the tragedy could have been circumvented.

Whether it's a school-wide organization like Peer Mediation or just a network of faculty and administration that can address the emotional and mental needs of students, it's time that schools recognize the importance of a support system for their students. It's the responsibility of educators to ensure that we have a safe and welcoming environment in which to learn.
October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, the perfect time to make a change. We can watch Perks of Being a Wallflower or read a news article about Amanda Todd's death and shake our heads despairingly at the tragedy of youth whose struggles go undetected. Or we can collectively -- schools, townships, students, teachers -- ensure that our youth have the guidance and support they need to thrive. A few yellow-shirt FROGS patrolling the hallways for lost freshmen wouldn't hurt either.