Suicide: The Last Taboo of the Dutch?

‘Act normal, because then you’re already acting crazy enough!’ (“Doe maar normaal, want dan doe je al gek genoeg”) is a common Dutch expression often heard around high schools when teenagers act out or demand attention. As a high school English teacher working in the Netherlands, it was shocking, not to mention highly disturbing, to hear that reported suicide attempts have been met with this passive response. Teenagers in general are anything but normal! They are crazy, fun loving, frustrated, hormonal, emotional creatures. Most of them land on their feet, eventually, and find their balance; but some are not so lucky, they are like a ticking time-bomb, waiting to implode. All of us, who survived our teen years, need to unite and spread the word to our youth. Don’t give up!

The horror stories of how some Dutch school systems deal with suicidal ideation gave me a scare, but also inspiration to speak out. My intention of writing this article is not to lay blame on schools, but to promote awareness. Okay, maybe it is also to lay some blame. Perhaps it is only my American perspective on the education system that makes me assume that teachers should be an extension of the parental units.

With the rise of school bullying world-wide, teenage depression has reached a whole new level, and quite often teachers are the first to recognize warning signs. However, in many Dutch schools, there are no support systems in place for depressed or suicidal teenagers, with the exception of sending them to the school nurse, who may or may not be pro-active. Sharing stories with several teachers at a recent gathering, we concluded that there is a huge glitch in Dutch suicide prevention awareness.

One teacher reported that a student threw herself in front of an oncoming train just before her fourteenth birthday. Her suicide left many unanswered questions. Why did she feel death was her only way out? What could or should have been done to prevent her death? How did everyone miss the warning signs?

One teacher told of a recent encounter of a 17-year old student that had asked to be excused to make an emergency phone call. Since it is forbidden to use mobile phones in the classroom of most schools, this required a discussion between teacher and student. The student confessed that she had been receiving text messages for over an hour from a suicidal friend. The teacher not only approved the phone call, but instructed the student to find the friend and stay by her side until the suicidal urge had passed. The student would not give up the name of the suicidal friend, as it felt like a betrayal, but did give several hints that would lead to this troubled teen’s identity. Strong hints, such as: the friend was a 16 year old girl; had been treated for two years for ‘EMO’-self-harm disorder, and was already in the school alert system, as she had attempted suicide the prior summer. The teacher wasted no time in engaging the school protocol of involving the in-house health care worker, who much to the teacher’s anger and surprise, responded with an email stating, it was probably just teenage drama that she didn’t have time for at the moment, so tell the student to give up the name of the girl. This response sent the enraged teacher to the student councilors and eventually to the Headmaster. The situation was resolved after two days and the suicidal teen was entered into a treatment program, however, it could have gone very wrong.

suicide
‘Sorry, I have no time for teenage drama.’

It is surprising that in this enlightened age, the topic of suicide is still surrounded by social stigmas and is a taboo for open and honest discussions. However, it is promising that each year world-wide more athletes, actors and musicians openly discuss their personal confrontations with depression and suicidal thoughts. One such admirable person is Dutch singer/songwriter Xander ‘Nax’ Stok, front-man for The New Shining. Following candid interviews, most recently on television program, RTL5 Tattoo Stories, the singer told about unresolved issues that had surrounded his suicide attempt during his teenage years. He received many emails and letters from Dutch teenagers who had been in the same suicidal situation and could easily relate to his story. The Netherlands needs more of these courageous testimonials.

‘World Suicide Prevention Week’ (September 9-13), swept through The Netherlands with little to no mention, and a bit of research revealed that not a single Dutch high school had an anonymous suicide helpline listed on their school website. This year, my goal as a concerned teacher and human being, is to promote suicide prevention awareness in Dutch schools. My contribution to ‘World Suicide Prevention Week’ was to share the Suicide Hotline information for The Netherlands, with my school administration and I urge all teachers (and parents) who read this article to do the same, as I believe schools are the most influential partner in suicide prevention.

Whenever I share this sentiment, some teachers feel a bit overwhelmed. One teacher commented, ‘there is such a demand on teachers already these days, and now you’re suggesting that we should also be expected to be on suicide prevention alert?’ My answer was simple, ‘Yes! It should be the most important part of our jobs, our student’s lives. Not the lesson-plans, grades or other demands… our students!’

Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 13-24 age group world-wide. It is past time to remove the taboo that surrounds open discussions on suicide ideation! Schools should be more proactive with student’s mental health issues!

Do you agree?

11 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article! This is a tremendous problem. With the availability of internet access to our young people and the disturbing phenomena of cyber bulling, we see the effects it has on many young people….suicide! As a very involved grandparent I would like to have that extra set of eyes and ears available (teachers) if one of my grandkids were having a problem with this issue!

    • I agree that cyber bullying is a tremendous problem, but internet access isn’t always bad. while there are indeed sites where cyber bullying appears to run rampant (think social networking sites such as Facebook and twitter), there are also sites where users actively try to create a loving environment and where cyber bullying is seemingly non-existent. It’s also these sites that try to get rid of the taboo on mental illness by educating users.

      • Good point, Anon, and thank goodness… but we can’t deny the cyber-bullying has increased the problem as Sandy (or Tim) stated above.Cheers, K

    • Hi Sandy,
      I have no children (well several hundred former students who have ‘adopted’ me along the way), 🙂 but I can imagine as a parent/grandparent the news reports on ‘cyber bullying’ must be frightening. Sometimes, as a teacher, it is difficult to keep a balance on how involved you become with your students, but in my personal opinion, teens can never have too many adults out there to lend an ear, crying shoulder or support in general…especially where depression is concerned. One thing I will say, the schools in Netherlands are very proactive on the ‘cyber bullying’ with a ‘zero tolerance’ policy. Thanks for the approval of the article, as well as the extra set of eyes. 🙂

  2. Love the article! I’ve noticed more people are starting to take a more realistic view on mental illness, especially in the last few years. I can remember that when I struggled with depression during my high school years teachers didn’t really seem to care, and I only got help when I reached out for it myself. Now that I work with high school students I try to create an environment where they comfortable enough to tell me whenever they feel under the weather.

    • Hi ‘Anon’, Nice to know there are kindred spirit teachers out there. Lucky students…an environment where teens feel secure to be themselves, but also to confide in the teacher is always win-win. Hope you never need to use the ‘hotline’ number, but encourage you to share it with your school administration as they can use volunteers for the phones (English, Dutch & French) … the World Suicide Prevention Hotline needs volunteers to help translate several languages. (Italian and Arabic come to mind)… Share with colleagues and friends and thank you for the positive feedback. K

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  3. Hi ‘Anon’, Nice to know there are kindred spirit teachers out there. Lucky students…an environment where teens feel secure to be themselves, but also to confide in the teacher is always win-win. Hope you never need to use the ‘hotline’ number, but encourage you to share it with your school administration as they can use volunteers for the phones (English, Dutch & French) … the World Suicide Prevention Hotline needs volunteers to help translate several languages. (Italian and Arabic come to mind)… Share with colleagues and friends and thank you for the positive feedback. K

  4. As a teacher with over 30-years devoted to the profession, and I am also a Dutchman, so perhaps I can shed some light here. There has been a trend over the years where parents are doing less and less and teachers are expected to pick up the pieces. Many women decided to take careers and then take children later in life, not realizing that unlike a puppy, they couldn’t return them when they became hard to manage or deal with. I agree with you that suicide thoughts needs to be taken seriously, but I don’t think teachers should become social workers, they don’t have the proper training and, in my opinion, it is the job of the parent to be a parent. Teachers should be aware and report troubles to the management, as the teacher in your article did, but then it is the job of the parents to help their children. Teenagers are great, if I didn’t believe that I would not have stayed with teaching for three decades, but they can be very emotional, and cause us Dutchies to say: “Doe maar normaal, want dan doe je al gek genoeg”.

    • Hi Docent (Teacher),
      Wow, you have brought many valid points to the table, and it clarifies the Dutch
      ‘Doe maar normaal’ quote. You sound as though you are observant, and would recognize and deal with a student with suicidal thoughts in a proper manner. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that teachers take on the role of social workers. You are completely correct that most teachers do not have proper training for that; however, the problem mentioned in the article was that the school social worker is the one who reacted with the ‘doe maar normaal’ comment. There I take issue. I still stick with the idea that teachers need to be approachable, aware, and responsive. They need to report any signs of unusual behavior and they need to follow up with the school social worker/nurse to make sure that any ‘at risk’ kids don’t fall through the cracks. The best solution is to get the information of 113Online (Dutch Suicide Prevention Hotline) available at all schools, posted openly on school websites, and suicide prevention should be discussed openly.

  5. Since the posting of this article in October, I have been contacted by a suicidal teenager. I provided her with the 113Online Suicide Hotline, and have recently received word that she is getting help for her depression. As much as that news warmed my heart, news that I received in January broke my heart. A former student, whom I had not heard from in years, committed suicide on New Years Eve, 2013. There’s a place in my mind and soul that still has trouble accepting this.

    Please share this article and the 113Online Suicide Hotline number with your teens, your schools, and churches. The world is often a crazy and confusing place for teens. My commitment to get suicide prevention awareness to the forefront in the Dutch education system is greater than ever. Please urge your schools to initiate prevention programs and provide support! Kathy

  6. This article tackles the reality of suicide among Dutch teenagers. Very on point! It’s a shame that the Dutch government hasn’t implemented any suicide prevention program.. I have two sisters who have depression as well so I can understand somehow. I know it’s a bit of topic but I’m currently conducting a research on elderly suicide though (as a start) and I’m think how do Dutch elderly (aged 64 and above) view suicide? I’ve heard very disturbing news as well..

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