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BOOKS Jane Mersky Leder gets 'Dead Serious' about ending teen suicide
by Angelique Smith
2018-02-23

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When Jane Mersky Leder first published Dead Serious: Breaking the Cycle of Teen Suicide in the late '80s, the "cultural and social landscape was so different than it is today. Very few people had access to computers, there was no [recognizable] internet, no open discussion about physical and sexual abuse, no suicide prevention programs in schools, no open discussion about the LGBT community."

The upcoming 2nd edition of Leder's book includes new chapters on LGBTQ teens, how bullying has evolved in the social media age and also includes resources on where and how to find help. With blunt, matter-of-fact interviews with attempters and personal stories from survivors, Leder tackles common myths about suicide while using a relatable tone to empower teens with the tools to help others and themselves.

Windy City Times spoke with Leder about a topic that, more than 30 years later, is still sometimes viewed as taboo to discuss and, given recent events, is often times exploited or not handled with the sensitivity and seriousness it deserves.

Windy City Times: Can you give us a bit of history on the original publication?

Jane Mersky Leder: The motivation for writing that book was the suicide of my brother. [It was] an attempt to get a handle on what happened, what might have caused his death, what I could have been done differently and why I felt guilty, upset and angry. I decided to do what I always do, which is to write. It was helpful for me on a personal level to hear and then write about stories of other people who had lost someone they cared about so deeply. The first book was published in '87, I did a lot of speaking and media and all that stuff. And I thought, "Okay, I'm done. Put that away and move on something else," and I did.

WCT: What made you decide to update the book?

JML: About a year and a half ago, I came across an article from NPR. I may have heard it, I may have seen it online. It said the biggest surge in suicides in the United States was among kids in middle school. I said, "Hmmm…I think it's time to get back on the horse." Once again, I learned a lot and, as the years passed, I feel I have a little bit better handle on what happened with my brother and some of the reasons why other young people choose to take their own lives.

WCT: In the original publication, you didn't mention your story at all?

JML: Correct. I was just a silent observer. Instead, I told the stories of other people, but through their stories I was able to shed a lot of light on my personal situation. I guess I had to write that book first before I had the guts to really take a deep, deep look inside myself and my family.

WCT: Have you ever heard any stories from readers on how the book has helped them? Or responses from educators?

JML: When you come out with a book like this you're always looking for "expert reviews." When that first review came in from the Foreword Reviews, which is very important, particularly for libraries, I was kind of shaking, [but] it was very, very positive. It was thirty years ago, but I seem to remember that yes, I did actually get letters from some teens who had read this and found it very helpful. You have to remember there wasn't a chance to get a response on Amazon, or on your blog or Twitter feed; they didn't exist.

WCT: Wow, yes, I forgot about that.

JML: Someone actually had to write a letter. It wasn't as if any author's address was published in the book, so they had to go through the publisher. It was a little bit of a schlep, but a few people did! I also got that support doing workshops and talks in front of a variety of teens. And there were always questions and people lining up after to tell me how important this was, or to tell me a quick, personal story. There's a lot of give and take and I'm hoping it will be the same this time around.

WCT: I just surprised myself by asking that question without thinking, how would you get in touch with someone thirty years ago without access to everybody all the time for every reason? Speaking of, how do you think technology has helped or hurt things in terms of this issue? I know you touch on that in the book, how people can get bullied 24/7. But then there is also more access to helpful resources due to the internet.

JML: You're right; it's a double-edged sword. There is a misconception though that cyberbullying is more rampant than face-to-face bullying and, in fact, that's not true. A lot of bullying starts face-to-face in school, on the bus, on a walk on the way home, and the difference today is that you can't escape it. It used to be that once you got in your front door, you were safe. You didn't have to deal with the onslaught until the next day. And now it's possible for it to be 24/7.

Often experts refer to this time we're living in as, "The Age of Anxiety." For young people to grow up with the threat of terrorism, the political rancor in this country, and academic pressures, the level of depression and anxiety disorder is higher than it's ever been. As a result, it's not a surprise that the numbers in teen suicide right now are at a 40-year high.

WCT: Can you tell us about some the experts you talked to when you were doing research?

JML: I had the pleasure of working with a whole new group of experts. What I found encouraging was a kind of word-of-mouth: "Oh, have you talked to Professor So-and-so? By the way, I think you need to talk to this person. I want to give you the number of this person there." I actually found that most helpful in the LGBTQ community. At a certain point, I felt that I was gathering enough material for a book in and of itself, but it wasn't the book that I was going to write and I didn't feel that I was the person to write it since I'm not a member of the community. I feel like that has to come from the inside out.

WCT: I respect that consideration.

JML: I talked to private therapists that deal with teenagers, people who specialize in depression and anxiety disorder, experts who focus on bullying, executive directors of foundations, organizations, and suicide prevention programs, it's across the board. People were so gracious with their time.

WCT: Was there anything in terms of the LGBTQ aspect of your book that was surprising to you in terms of either unique challenges the community faces or any stats in particular?

JML: A lot. I think the most staggering, horrible statistic is that suicide attempts among LGBTQ teens are 4x times that of their "straight" peers; and that they're 4 to 6 times more likely to end up requiring medical attention. I found that distressing, but not surprising. Being a teenager is never easy, you've got to deal with social and love relationships, the pressure of getting good grades, going to college, just figuring out who you are and trying to become independent of your parents when you really need them…I mean the challenges are enormous.

WCT: It's easy to forget what it was like.

JML: When it comes to LGBTQ teens, there is no level playing field, because on top of all of those stressors, you have a bevy of other ones: being outed when you're not ready, rejection by family and friends, physical safety at school and in the home, homelessness, substance abuse, the list goes on. One of the most disheartening statistics is the fact that 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide within their lifetime—that's nine times greater than the average and it's very distressing, to say the least. One can only hope that with more information, with younger people who are much more excepting and open…

WCT: Any thoughts on [the Netflix show] 13 Reasons Why and the mixed reactions to how it portrays suicide?

JML: I'm very happy that it stimulated a national conversation. On the other hand, there was so much about it that was unrealistic, untrue…this idea that you can come back from the grave and get back at all those people you feel had a negative impact on your life, we don't get to do that…it's pure fantasy.

WCT: I can see how portraying it that way can be dangerous.

JML: As journalists, as authors, one of the caveats is that you do not sensationalize [suicide]. That you don't give people kudos or that you don't have headlines splashing across the front of newspapers. That, unfortunately, can takes kids who are on the precipice and, in many cases, push them over the edge.

Read more from author Jane Mersky Leder in Dead Serious: Breaking the Cycle of Teen Suicide for Teens, Adults and Educators, available in both eBook and paperback formats on Amazon.


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