Some 404 basic education students, according to Department of Education (DepEd) figures, committed suicide in academic year 2021-2022. That figure is not small, considering that 2,147 students in the same period did not succeed in doing so. For DepEd, these are mere statistics, not young lives entrusted to them. If DepEd cared and monitored, comparative figures could have been presented during the recent Senate hearing presided over by Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, if only to show whether the situation has improved or not. Suicide in our schools is not new, and the social stigma attached to it simply means it is underreported. Figures are as low as education officials want them to be. What about suicide rates in higher education?
I wish it were a fluke, but there was one terrible semester when three students I knew committed suicide. One was not a spur of the moment jump-off-a-building or jump-into-the-path-of-a-speeding-bus. It was reported that the student went into a vacant room on a Saturday, covered all windows and door slits with duct tape, lit a bag of charcoal, and died of asphyxiation. Why the student chose to do the deed in school rather than at home or elsewhere is a question left unanswered.
The mother of another suicide case asked to see me. Before going to the wake, I checked the student’s records to make sure failing my course was not the motive. The mother, in denial, said her child did not commit suicide, and asked if I had noticed anything different in the days or weeks before. I replied that aside from unusual absences, there was nothing out of the ordinary. As a dean’s lister, the student was entitled to unlimited absences. After the wake, I remembered that the student had given me a Spanish-language Bible because I mentioned in class that it was a good way to brush up on a rusty language. I dug it up from my cubicle and found photos inside to remember him by. Was this a sign I did not read correctly, or did the gift gain meaning only in retrospect? I am a history teacher by training, not a guidance counselor.
Another semester, a note from the guidance office informed me that a student who was advised to take a leave of absence insisted on coming to school. I was told that the student should not be left alone, and that the student’s mother would be around. I invited the mother to sit inside the classroom, but the student demanded that the mother wait outside. Once, returning from a week’s absence, the student said, “I took a bit too much medicine.” An overdose. Next time I saw her, the student showed me fresh razor cut marks on her wrists and asked, “Can I hug you?” I didn’t think it was appropriate, but agreed, asking in my head: What can I do? What should I do? A semester later, she greeted me on campus, cheerful as usual. She seemed alright.
Even before the pandemic, many students would come to me at the beginning of the term to inform me about fits of depression, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, the inability to cope with stress, difficult exams, graded recitation, or even group work. I presume they are telling the truth, and give them some slack. I was shocked when an overperforming student’s mother requested my signature on a form for dropping the course a few weeks before the end of the term. I couldn’t understand this because the student could not fail, even with an “F” in a unit test a few days later. The mother explained her child was not prepared for the unit test, but would not take a grade lower than an “A.” By withdrawing, the student would have to repeat the course, so I scolded the mother as I signed the form, saying, “I will sign as you want me to, but I am telling you, this isn’t the way to raise a child. Believe me, a child that never fails in school is not equipped for life in the real world.”
As I write this, I remember many families who use a cellphone or tablet as the new pacifier. Videos or games will keep a child’s attention, make the child quiet and easy to feed. When toddlers grow older, they play with their fingertips on a touchpad. No more outdoor, physical games with other children. I sense a generation whose entitlement springs from never losing on video games that form them. Before they lose to their smartphones, they simply reset the games and always end up a winner. Real life is more than the virtual lives on a phone, tablet, or computer. Learning to cope with and in the world is a skill that saves lives.
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