When I was doing clinical social work, I had the assignment of working with a class of high school students whose classmate had killed himself.
The townspeople and school officials were concerned about ping-pong effects and the possibility of more tragedy. I had almost two hours to work with about 20 students in a group setting. All of the students talked about their friend and about their own suicide thoughts and actions. Most had thought about suicide, and four or five had made some attempt.
One student had loaded his father's handgun and had planned to shoot himself one day, several weeks prior to his friend taking his life. As he was preparing, the phone rang and a friend asked, "Wassup?" The phone conversation continued into something trivial. I asked if he planned on making another attempt. He said no, he just didn't feel like it again. The caller had no idea that he may have saved a life.
The nation is in shock to realize that the potential for what happened at Virginia Tech could be Anytown, USA. The amount of fear, anger, sadness and paranoia that spawn from this kind of tragedy is impossible to measure. To increase security and do whatever it takes to protect ourselves and our children is an expensive and impossible task. There are reasonable actions to take, and they are basically free.
Just in case some of you are asking, "What can I do to help prevent this kind of tragedy?" instead of "Why doesn't someone protect us?", I thought I would write a few suggestions.
1. If you are a teacher, make contact every day with every student in your class. If this is too time-consuming, just make contact with the three students in each class who are the most difficult for you. Keep the contact honest and sincere. Brief is fine. When you do lesson plans, include projects for small groups of two or more for some assignments. Random selection is preferred.
2. If you work in an office, learn the names of the people you work with or see everyday. You do not have to go to lunch or become friends with these people, just learn their names, say hi and go on with your work. Recognizing someone, using their name, is probably the easiest positive recognition we can give. If someone at work is difficult for you to relate to, put in a little extra effort.
3. For students, learn to tolerate differences. Refuse to take part in bullying or teasing. Sometimes, "Wassup?" has more power than you can imagine. Make an effort to acknowledge three classmates a day. Think of three people you don't get along with or don't like very well and design three compliments for each of them. You don't have to tell them, but notice how thinking about it changes who you are. A smile without words may be the most you can do. If you can't smile, make a list of 10 things you like about yourself. Stay honest with any effort you choose to make.
4. Parents: Make sure every one of your children hears something good from you each day. Practice complimenting your children. Some author whose name escapes me said "boys do not mature into men without the praise of older men." The only reason we don't praise our children more is because we weren't. It can be learned. A small effort to save a life.
5. Everyone: We can all incorporate what is listed above. It takes effort from all of us, not money, not more security.
I like sayings that make me think. Two of my favorites are: "If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem" and "Lord, help me become the person my dog thinks I am" (Dawn Ewing).
- John Fittell, a Lawrence resident and a retired clinical social worker, was the assistant director and head of the clinical team at the Haskell Indian Alcohol Education Prevention and Treatment Program for three years. He also did group and family therapy and relationship work in private practice from 1981 to 1995.