The Columbus Dispatch

 

Children shouldn’t have to be savvy and proactive about suicide. They also shouldn’t have to consider the dangers of online predators or worry about how it might feel to be the target of a cyberbully.

But in our fast-paced and interconnected society, children don’t get to remain innocent — as in, ignorant of and protected from difficult things — for very long.

Many parents probably long to change that and return to what seems like a simpler time. Because that isn’t possible for most people, stories like that of Emma Martinez offer hope that, with the right guidance, children can cope and even thrive amid today’s challenges.

Martinez, an eighth-grader at Hilliard Heritage Middle School, knows what it’s like to feel so broken and alone that you don’t want to be alive any more; she also knows how important it is to have help. When she suffered from bulimia two years ago, she could turn to her mom, who is a social worker. She knows not everyone has that kind of support system at home.

Now that she’s better, Martinez is part of Hope Squad, a program in which students are available to help peers who are suicidal. Hilliard is the first central Ohio school district to formally train student volunteers to guide other students to professional help.

Phil Cox, a seventh-grader at Hilliard Weaver Middle School who is part of the program, figures a teen at risk might be more comfortable talking to him than to an adult: “We’re an outlet for people, so they know where to go when they need help because it can be scary to take that step.

“It’s about being there for people when they’re down and spreading kindness.”

With suicide rates on the rise nationally for more than a decade, more schools are including discussion of suicide in their health classes or creating standalone units. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among youth and young adults, second only to car crashes and other accidental injuries.

Ohio law has been changing incrementally to require training for teachers and other adults in schools to learn about preventing suicide, and lawmakers are considering requiring some training for students, too.

It’s appropriate, because the risk is a reality for many. A study led by researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus found that youth suicides nationwide spiked after the 2017 release of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” in which a young girl leaves behind recordings explaining her decision to kill herself.

While it may seem unfortunate that middle- and high-schoolers are called upon for such grave duty, the good news is that many can rise to the occasion and grow from it, and adults in schools are recognizing students’ potential as a support system for their peers.

Adolescents have a reputation for cruelty that, for some, is well deserved. But other experiences show an enormous capacity for caring. After a 17-year-old junior at Westerville Central High School tried to hang himself at school in front of his classmates, students the next day blanketed the walls and stairs with colorful sticky notes featuring encouraging messages.

The school’s art teacher kept a box full, and students are working them into permanent art projects in the guidance area.

They are a testament to what can happen when kids practice kindness.