The ultimate tragedy

A St. Petersburg Times reporter writes about the ultimate tragedy: Her 12-year-old son’s suicide. There’s lots of information here for parents about childhood depression.

A 15-year-old student at my daughter’s old high school stepped in front of a train a few days ago, apparently a suicide. A 14-year-old boy committed suicide in the same way last year. The reporter interviewed a teacher whose 18-year-old son committed suicide.

(Margo) Wixsom, the photography teacher, said she believes that increased discussion about depression, mental illness and suicide can save lives.

“It is true that parents here have high expectations,” she said. “But suicide is not about parental expectations, any more than cancer or any other disease is about parent expectations. Suicide is caused by depression; mental illness,” she said.

Wixsom said teenagers are “highly susceptible” to depression. “And they don’t feel comfortable talking about it. Boys, particularly, aren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings. They want to be strong, tough it out. And they don’t want to distress their parents. Girls may cry for help, first, but with boys, it is much more effective. It tends to be irreversible. It is a very clear choice.”

“Building a brick wall around the train tracks won’t prevent suicide. Talking to kids will,” Wixsom said.

I hope so.

About Joanne


  1. It’s not at all clear that “talking to kids” will prevent suicide anymore than building brick walls. The St. Petersburg reporter was fairly tuned into her kid — or so she thought — certainly she talked to him a lot, they were seeing psychologists — who were, in addition to other therapies were talking to him, too. Everyone was involved, yet nobody foresaw what he did.

    It’s easy to say, after the fact, “if we had only known x or done y” — which, implicitly, lays blame on parents or teachers or friends who didn’t know, or didn’t act. The amount of guilt everyone feels is already intense, a well-intentioned comment like Wixsom’s may only make everyone feel worse.

    But in many cases, even with caring parents who try to communicate, heck even with medical professionals involved who have training and experience in recognizing depression, people don’t anticipate what may happen.

    I’m not against talking — certainly it’s better than NOT talking — but it’s a little facile to say it *will* prevent suicide. It *might* prevent *some* suicides — still a good thing, to be sure.

  2. While people like TMA are too skeptical to talk to kids, guys, I’m the one who’s been doing the talking. I spent a lot of time in chat rooms of the nicer sort when I was out of work; I met a lot of young people who I’ll always be proud to say I knew.

    I talked five or six of them out of attempting suicide; they’d been through the usual dreck: cheating lovers, mistreated at home, picked on at school, fears and anxieties of all kinds… they had it all planned out, pills and guns and razor blades.

    Another stayed online with me till the police came to take him to the hospital after he took a whole bottle of Mommy’s pills, yet another let me talk her out of cutting her wrists after she’d been raped at a party by a friend she trusted.

    Folks, I wasn’t even physically present when I was talking to these kids. Go ahead and tell me talking isn’t effective.

  3. Speedwell,
    Are you deliberately distorting what others have said or are you just daft? I am not going to waste time commenting further on your post since the distortions are obvious for all to see.

    Intelligent dissent is welcome but lies and distortions are despised.

  4. My cousin killed himself 2 weeks b/f his 17th b-day. 2 months b/f graduation. He put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger w/ his toe. My uncle found him. W/in a year, the whole family was in shreds, divorce was looming, his brothers were in counseling, and his father had triple bypass surgery to repair the damage from his heart attack. It had been a wonderful family. Yes, there had been fights btw him and the ‘rents. He was a teenager. His moods were on a tilt-a-whirl. My aunt forced the family dr into an autopsy. She knew her son. So what killed him? Diabetes. He had a blood sugar level thru the stratosphere. Nobody knew. He’d never been tested. My aunt knew her boys. She was so deep in their lives… She did all the things that mothers do. She looked constantly for signs of drug/alcohol use, sexual escapades, the wrong crowd, anything. Everything. Yet diabetes snuck passed her. Once it was all over, it was amazingly clear to one and all that the signs had been there. The one thing she didn’t know to look for. No history in the immediate family.
    I think the lesson is deeper than just talking. I don’t know what she could have done differently. But I know her pain was as deep as any parent who has lost a child to depression/suicide. Instead of asking why she had missed the signs of depression, she asked hersel how she had missed diabetes.
    Suicide is not always caused by depression.

  5. merle,
    Sorry for your family’s lose.

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    JJ, you may be familiar with my decades long campaign to bring back the people catchers. If the assuredness of death under the wheels of a locomotive were significantly reduced, the opportunistic suicide might be reduced. My latest letter follows:

    A hundred years ago, someone jumping in front of a trolley more likely than not would have been scooped up clear of the rails and held secure until the trolley stopped. People catchers were on San Francisco streetcars well into the 50’s. It should be only a trivial engineering problem to design a people catcher that would be effective at the speeds entering a station, and with modern materials and design tools, successful people catches at far higher speeds might be possible.
    It is not done, because some people have decided to make absolutely no attempt other than forbidding people jumping on the tracks to resolve this problem. I wonder why. If I, in the operation of my business, were to make no attempt to reduce the hazard associated with my machinery I would damn soon be sued out of business. Transit, alas, will not even try to save lives.

    Walter E. Wallis, P.E.
    Palo Alto, CA

  7. I’m certainly not “too skeptical to talk to kids!” Quite the contrary! And I *do* talk to my kids a lot, though, to be fair, they aren’t teens yet (one is at the cusp of teendom). But please don’t pretend that’s the magic solution to all problems, or, say, after any suicide, something like “if only they had TALKED to him” — again, maybe in some specific cases it’s apt.

    I don’t know what I think about online chat sites for depressed teens. Certainly, I’m glad those kids found speedwell and didn’t wind up at one of those online chat sites in which kids encouraged each other to kill themselves. That’s talk, too, I suppose. But clearly there are lots of hotlines and chat rooms that do a lot of good and maybe there is something in the very anonymity of it that can help some people.

    I’ve never known any teen suicides closely — but I have had a close relative kill himself as an adult, after a twenty-plus year on-and-off battle with depression that involved multiple suicide attempts, medications, hospitalizations, even ECT towards the end, and lots and lots of talking by everyone. And we all still wonder whether we could have done more — I know I could have, but I don’t know whether it would have mattered.


  8. I can’t agree with the original quote that all but completely dismisses “parental expectations.”

    Anything that is likely to torment the psyche of a teen — whether parental pressure, family dysfunction, school problems, relationship problems, whatever else — all can be lumped into “depression,” or at least root causes of it.

    In an increasingly competitive world — particularly for college admissions and jobs, where more high-schoolers are grounded for getting a “B” or two on their report card, who aren’t allowed to do anything but please their parents by getting into Stanford — it’s hard to imagine that one could so readily dismiss “parental expectations” as a potential contributing factor to depression is beyond me.

  9. PJ/Maryland says:

    Merle, thanks for posting about your cousin. Diabetes does run in my family; untreated, I can see how it would act a bit like depression. That is, occasionally you feel really really rotten, and you look ahead to it happening again and again, and life seems less than worthwhile.

    I hope your aunt is encouraged by pushing and finding out about her son’s disorder. At least this knowledge can help the rest of the family, and make sure they don’t have the same problem.

  10. PJ/Maryland says:

    Walter, I’m not familiar with “people catchers”, are they anything like the cow catchers that steam locomotives used to have? Cowcatchers were an American feature; the Europeans didn’t use them, since they had more fences than we did.

    One possible reason they’re not in use might be liability issues. Anybody who is killed or injured despite them could sue, as I understand the law. (I suspect there may be other problems with their use. Do they also pick up trash from the tracks, for example? This would increase track fires.)

    FWIW, I don’t think the NYC subways have ever had anything like this; not to say they couldn’t introduce them, I guess. I don’t know how many people die in front of trains each year (I would guess it’s not more than a hundred, nation-wide, but I might be way off base); I don’t recall hearing of more than 3 or 4 per year in the NY area.

  11. PJ/Maryland says:

    A couple people have mentioned parental expectations and academic pressures. Does anyone know what the teen suicide rate in Japan is? Seems to me the pressure is much higher there, though there may be compensating cultural factors.

  12. For years I’ve read about the high suicide rate among Japanese schoolchildren. I haven’t seen anything about it lately, don’t know if it’s changed.

    As for parental expectations, some kids assume expectations that aren’t there. I had to tell my type-A kid “I don’t care if you make a C!!!” over and over before it sunk in. She would get so tense about her grades that it made her sick, which is counterproductive anyway, and she projected her high expectations onto me before I made her stop. I can see how a parent who didn’t take into account a child’s perfectionist character might not realize how that child’s expectations of herself could be overwhelming.

  13. The suicide rate for males 15 to 24 years old is twice as high in the U.S. as in Japan (even though the Japanese overall are more likely to commit suicide).

    Most teen-agers who commit suicide are not high-achieving students who care deeply about school. They’ve got other issues.

  14. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Jumping off the GG Bridge or in front of a train is a pretty sure way to end one’s agony. Making the process less sure might give talking more time to work.
    People catchers worked a century ago, and it is difficult to believe that they could not be made better today.
    Would they be 100% effective? No, but then trains now are 100% effective killing pedestrians.
    Two Palo Alto boys are dead because a convenient way out was available. I think any life is worth trying to save. Others seem not to care. Shame!

  15. So many ways for me to get in trouble with this thread and so little time…

    1.) People will always be able to commit suicide if they want to, short of locking them in a padded cell or other radical measures.

    From here down is strictly my perception; if anyone has facts to support or refute these positions please let me know.

    2.) The suicide rate in the United States is going up not down. You can talk about the increased pressure all you want to but survival is easier now than it was during the frontier days. Many major diseases have been eradicated or are largely treatable now. The threat of Native Americans or bands of outlaws attacking your home and killing everyone there is diminished. It is very seldom that anyone freezes to death during a hard winter or starves. Life is more complicated now but I just don’t buy into the expectations lead to suicide concept.

    3.) We as a society no longer have a strong set of core values. We might be vehemently in favor of, or opposed to, an issue such as abortion but our belief in something greater than us has gone down overall. This leads directly to the increase in suicide.

    4.) We worship at the altar of vanity. It is this feeling of expectation that leads people to try to solve temporary problems with a permanent solution.

    5.) Making a big stretch here but, our capitalistic society advocates and promises a quick fix for every problem. If you smoke, use this patch to quit or that toothpaste to make your teeth shine. If you are pregnant, just get an abortion. If you are fat, have an operation or by my line of diet products. Don’t like the way you look? No problem, I have all types of make-up, plastic surgery, clothes and other solutions that will solve the problem for you! We live is society that exploits our insecurities instead of addresses them.

    In conclusion, for both of you who make it this far, “people-catchers” on trains or other such measures do nothing but make people feel better. If we are serious about lowering the suicide rate the problems are much deeper and changes need to be made to our society. This is not an attack on capitalism; I believe it is the best economic system available from a practical point of view. I am just saying we need to acknowledge some of our societal problems and address them. I am not confident that we can successfully do so though because any attempts to do so we be met with fierce resistant.

  16. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Making suicides more difficult will reduce the number of impulse suicides, especially among the young. The accompanying reduction in accidental deaths is just gravy.

    Ross, you are correct in #1 and fuzzy or worse in the rest of your dis.

    I guess that as I, an engineer, see an engineering solution, you as a [what?]reject my solution because, well, it is not yours and, because your “solution” would require a total rejection of one of the world’s most successful societies, you don’t want there to be a solution.

  17. Walter,
    Glad we agree on #1! 🙂

    Your point about I reject your solution because it is not mine is kind of tautological isn’t it? I mean, if your suggestion was mine I would not reject it since I would not have made the suggestion if I did not agree with it. (And you thought I was being fuzzy earlier)

    My post was rather long so you probably did not get to the part where I said our society is the best available but that it needs work.

    I don’t see the problem as being people jumping in front of trains. That is a symptom of a much deeper problem which needs to be addressed.

    As for the people catchers, if people are falling in front of trains in large numbers (yeah, yeah, define large) or if installing the people catchers make sense as a way to improve the efficiency of the trains then I am all for them. If you are just talking about putting them on to keep a few people from committing suicide, your money might be better invested elsewhere. I have no idea what the costs would be versus the benefits so I am not taking a firm stand either way. I am kind of fuzzy about that whole issue.

    Love your posts and I will catch your reply tomorrow. It is off to the Pub for me.


  18. Deliberately Anonymous says:


    I think you are saying that Americans, in general, have less character than they used to. Less fortitude, less prudence, less hope, less diligence, less generosity, less… fill in your virtue here. I think that is an accurate assessment. As a parent I am making a conscious effort to cultivate character in my children because I fear that our culture discourages virtue in so many ways.

    I wonder if this “decline in national character” isn’t due, at least in part, to the fact that on the material level our lives are so much easier now. Adversity may not make people happier but it probably builds character. And I suspect that people who are more used to “toughing it out” in difficult circumstances are far less likely to ever consider suicide a solution to a difficult life.

  19. Walter E. Wallis says:

    If the problem is not people jumping in front of trains then what post are you responding to, Ross?

  20. I think Ross thinks the problem is people wanting to jump in front of trains, or do anything else to end their lives. I agree. Being prevented from jumping in front of a train does not eliminate suicidal tendencies.

  21. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Jumping in front of a train, on the other hand, eliminates suicidal tendencies?
    I guess it is a good thing I am an engineer, because I would not last long in the world of sophists where lives can be defined out of existence to score debating points.

  22. Laura,
    You are indeed correct.

    Deliberately Anonymous,
    Your first paragraph is somewhat of a correct translation of my thoughts. I don’t think I would go quite so far as you have stated but my thought on the matter are still developing. Your second paragraph translation is dead on and I totally agree.

    Silly me, I thought the post was about suicide and depression. I did not realize that we were only supposed to be discussing the epidemic of people jumping in front of trains in the United States. Of the approximately 20 posts to this point my rough count shows 15 that fail to mention trains as the primary focus of the comment. Obviously, we all lack your keen intellect and engineering background. Instead of honing in on the real problem of killer trains we have been terribly distracted by lesser problems, such as suicide in general or teen depression.

    You and jab are two of the people I disagree with most often but I enjoy reading your posts and, for the most part, I respect what you have to say and you make your points well. However, I think that your comment about “If the problem is not people jumping in front of trains then what post are you responding to, Ross?” is either poorly thought out or an attempt to stifle legitimate discussion. Please note that the nature of blog comments is that they are made soon after reading an article so I don’t mean “poorly thought out” as an insult although you are welcome to receive it in any manner you wish. I fully admit that some of my posts are poorly thought out and/or filled with grammatical errors. I enjoy the exchange of ideas and if I am checking Joanne’s site from a coffee shop or other location with limited functionality I will type a few quick thoughts down and be on my way. I think of this site as a group of friends sharing ideas so my remarks are rather informal.

    To all,
    Since I have rambled for this long already and I have mentioned people I disagree with most but enjoy, I would also like to say a big thank you to the other people who frequently post on this site and to Joanne for putting the work in to make it all happen. The caliber of comments on this site keeps me coming back for more even though I should be working on that darn dissertation! Speaking of which….

    Regards to all,

  23. “Jumping in front of a train, on the other hand, eliminates suicidal tendencies? ”

    Well, yes.

    I don’t think that we should try to turn the world into a padded room in order to prevent a few people from committing suicide. Especially since a simple plastic bag, a rope, any one of the various substances kept in theo home, or even a tall building with windows can do the trick in fairly short order. With all of those things available, modifying trains seems to me to be a wasted effort.

    “I wonder if this “decline in national character” isn’t due, at least in part, to the fact that on the material level our lives are so much easier now. Adversity may not make people happier but it probably builds character. And I suspect that people who are more used to “toughing it out” in difficult circumstances are far less likely to ever consider suicide a solution to a difficult life.”

    So what to do?

    Stop technological advancement in its tracks? (Yes, there are proven ways to do this. Just look at current aerospace regulations and NASA operations for tips)

    Hopefully, no one here considers that a solution.

    If our kids aren’t in danger of starving, then at least we can set our standards of performance, academic and otherwise, high enough so that our children will regularly be performing at the top of their game in order to meet them. That standard should increase as the effort involved in basic survival drops toward zero. They’ll get practice pushing themselves, sticking with the program, and other related skills that allow them to face life without being tempted to quit the game forever.

  24. I’ve had 3 cousins on one side of the family commit suicide. Maybe it’s societal, but the last one (age 16)was born and grew up in Ireland. So it’s seems like there’s a strong biological component at the core of this. I predict 50 years from now (and hopefully much less) they’ll look back on us and shake their heads, just like we look back and shake our heads at all the people who suffered with scurvy or rickets or goiter or any of the other diseases preventable by a small dose of this or that.

  25. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Why bother to wash, since you will just get dirty again?
    My discussion was toward one component of suicide, the local boy who jumped in front of a train, and the ease with which this one favorite means of opportunistic spur of the moment suicide could be aleviated. To suggest that I should not discuss resolving one problem if I could not resolve all problems at once is at least a peculior approach to life.
    I always heard that warm beer was bad for you.

  26. Well, Walter, you said this:

    “If the problem is not people jumping in front of trains then what post are you responding to, Ross?”

    which seemed to me and apparently to others to indicate that you thought the act of jumping in front of a train comprised the entire problem of suicide. And I havn’t drunk any warm beer.

  27. What she said.

    Thanks for covering my back Laura! 😉

  28. Walter E. Wallis says:

    The problem of jumping in front of trains is a resolvable problem. Can someone here tell me what is wrong with solving any problem a little bit at a time? I honestly would like to know. I have never suggested that I could, with a wave of my hand, eliminate suicide from the face of the earth. I did not even want to suggest that all the other ways of reducing suicides were less worthy. So why do you hate me?

  29. I don’t hate you, Walter.

    Your people catcher may be a fine idea for stopping train-related deaths.

    As far as the problem of suicide, what causes people to do it, how to see it coming and prevent it, your people catchers actually come in at the tail end of the problem.

    A woman in my church lost her husband to suicide a few years ago. Here is what happened: He began going to casinos and conceived a gambling addiction. Credit cards maxed out, family finances ruined. Embezzlement, job loss. Psychiatric treatment. Medication. Electroshock therapy. Gambling continues. Wife reluctantly makes him leave and changes locks when he removes items from the house and sells them to support gambling (two little girls, had to salvage some kind of home for them.) Burglary to survive and support habit. Arrest. Hanged himself in jail cell.

    The problem here isn’t just that he killed himself. That was just the result. The despair, rage, guilt, fear, humiliation that he and his family suffered before the suicide were the problem. So is the solution (1) to be more careful to remove belts from newly incarcerated burglars, or (2) to work very hard to improve gambling addiction prevention and treatment? (Of course, these are not mutually exclusive.)

    (actually, I’d just as soon the earth opened up and swallowed the casinos, but that’s just me.)

  30. Walter E. Wallis says:

    But you would still reject trying to save some of them?

  31. Walter. Put your people catchers on the trains, by all means.

  32. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Ross, how do you vote?

  33. The comments here have taken a truly interesting turn. The tendency for comments to venture off-topic, into mechanisms to prevent specific suicides, or analysing other comments, actually says something–if only indirectly-about suicide. It is an unspeakable act, and very, very difficult to confront, especially if a child kills himself.

    The mother’s description of her son’s death is tragic. There is nothing, at the time, which she could have known to do better. Only with hindsight might relatives wonder what they could have done to prevent this terrible act.

    We could debate forever why people kill themselves, but only the dead could end the debate. It seems that a good percentage of suicides are impulsive; is it such a bad idea, then, to take simple measures to make obvious impulsive acts more difficult? Anyone who listens to the traffic report in a large city will hear regular reports of mass transit delays caused by suicides. Posting the Samaritans’ telephone number by high bridges might not help–but does it hurt?

  34. Julie,
    I like your analysis but I would have to disagree with you on one point. I don’t know that the dead would understand it either. I have had several suicides in my extended family and I firmly believe there is a genetic component that predisposes some people to take their own life. I have thought about it myself numerous times and I can still feel the pull of it sometimes and usually it is for things I know are not even that major. I can’t really explain the feeling well but it just kind of a wanting to quit the game and be at piece. Fortunately for me I have two children now so even though the pull that I sometimes feel is still there it is a lot easier to resist. And no, I am not suicidal at present so please don’t attempt any “interventions”.

    a.) I don’t hate you. I seldom engage in good natured banter with those I hate. It would be even rarer for me to say things such as:
    “Love your posts and I will catch your reply tomorrow.”


    “You and jab are two of the people I disagree with most often but I enjoy reading your posts and, for the most part, I respect what you have to say and you make your points well.”

    (jab, if you are reading this I don’t hate you either. Just for the record, I don’t hate anyone who posts here I nurse my grudges and put a great deal of time and effort into them. It just takes too much effort to do that online and to make it work. I would say I love you guys but I ran out of beer last night and I have not gotten the chance to buy more yet.)

    b.) Why would you think we hate you? I have written several positive things about you on this thread and the only negative comment I saw was a rather gentle comment where I said that you might not have thought your idea through before you hit the post button. And then I said that I do that from time to time and it is the nature of blogs. Hardly a stinging critique (see my rude comment to Speedwell. about three posts down, for an example of a stinging critique. And no Speedy, I don’t hate you either buddy.).

    c.) I vote using the little bubble sheets, kind of like scantrons.

    d.) So how do you vote? I hope it is not those pesky butterfly ballots. I have heard they can be a real pain to figure out.

  35. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Sometimes our prayers are answered. California’s Secy of State announced yeaterday that the touch screen electronic voting system previously approved, one that “saved” everything only electronicly, will be modified to produce a paper, voter verifyable ballot. Hackers weep. As for the punchcard ballots, you really had to work at screwing one up.

    Engineers know. Others hope.

  36. Mark Odell says:

    Walter E. Wallis wrote: California’s Secy of State announced yeaterday that the touch screen electronic voting system previously approved, one that “saved” everything only electronicly, will be modified to produce a paper, voter verifyable ballot. Hackers weep.

    Hackers weep?

  37. Margo Wixsom says:

    I was truly disturbed that I was misquoted in the San Jose Mercury News after the recent suicide by one of our students at Palo Alto HS. I had a discussion with the news reporter, who apoligized that her editor had cut out some critical information that I stated about the importance of EDUCATION about suicide, AND the importance about getting MEDICAL CARE for the illness of depression.

    I am even more disturbed while doing Internet research to see my name posted and again misquoted by Ms. Jacobs. I do not “readily dismiss” parental expectations, but referred to the documented FACT that suicide is a mental illness that is not merely the “blame” of random exterior forces any more that other diseases, like cancer. During the interview, the reporter kept pressing for me to confirm HER suspicion that the two recent suicides at our high school were the cause of parental expectation. My comment addressed her repeated speculations and lack of understanding of suicide and depression as medical disease.

    The reporter further insisted that the lack of a large wall or barrier around the train tracks was also a “cause” of suicide. I again corrected her that the means chosen for suicide was neither “cause” nor “blame” and told her that a wall was not the answer to educating our community about the disease of depression. Fishing around to “blame” suicide on someone [parental expectations] or something [the train system] is no more effective than blaming random factors in any other disease. Such ignorant speculation merely causes great distress to those affected and is quite pointless.

    It is out of integrity to quote someone secondhand like this and continue to pass along misinformation. Effective dialogue requires responsible communication, rather than partial information, snide remarks, and speculation that is evidenced here.

    I recommend that Ms. Jacobs call me or anyone that she decides to misquote on websites or any other format, and request permission to attribute information before she continues this sad line of miscommunication. I am surprised that Ms. Jacobs decided to exclude the fact that I am not merely a teacher speculating about suicide. I am a parent of a son who completed a suicide in 1996, which was also in the news article that she quoted from. Since that time I have done a great deal of research and reading about the disease of depression and the tragedy of suicide. Consistently diseases like cancer make people respond with respect for tragic illness, and insistence on education, information and medical treatment. Suicide and depression are still considered ripe for random speculation rather than community education, and effective diagnosis and medical treatment.

    For those of you who would like responsible and accurate information about suicide, read the book “Night Falls Fast.” It has the most comprehensive bibliography of information on suicide [worldwide] that I have seen in publication. It is a multi-disciplinary approach to the causes and prevention of suicide. When interviewed for the Mercury News article, I repeatedly stated that people should read books like “Night Falls Fast,” rather than speculate on suicide if they care to understand the disease and support community education.