Coping with Teen Suicide – Who do communities turn to when they want answers? Let’s bring in Jeff Yalden . . .Another day and another loss. Teen suicide is becoming an epidemic. I am left speechless today as I hear about another two suicides from this past weekend. After 20 years of speaking and concentrating my work on teens and families, I feel privileged to share my heart and give people hope in such tough times. I only wish the teens hurting would have reached out to me before deciding that suicide is their answer. Every day, I feel a part of me dies wishing I could have made sense in sharing that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem in the heart. But, the pain sometimes is so severe that even reaching out for help isn’t even a thought. I wish I could take the pain away from family, friends, classmates and community members. The tragic loss of a young person dying leaves parents, siblings, classmates, coaches, teachers, and administrators scrambling with so much hurt and thoughts. We are all left wondering “WHY?” and “WHAT?” we could have done to prevent such loss or done something to help. I’d like to share with you the factors that might lead a child or a young person to suicide in hope that this may prevent further tragedies. I gather this from years of experience and trying to understand. Teen Suicide Suicide can be complex in so many ways. Relatively rare amongst children, the rate of teen suicides and suicide attempts is growing exponentially amongst teens and young adults. The cry for help amongst our government agencies is growing more and more each day. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds. For every suicide there are at least 25 attempts. Given access to firearms, the risk of suicide increases dramatically. Nearly 60% of all suicides in this country are committed with a gun. Any gun in your home should be unloaded, locked up, and kept out of reach of children and teens. The other means of suicide or attempted suicide is overdosing with prescription or non-prescription medicines. Be aware that teens will trade, buy, and steal medication and will carry them in their lockers or their backpacks. I’m supportive of schools frequently bringing in drug-sniffing dogs and searching their schools and teens back packs. Don’t think this is a punishment for a certain “type” of teen, this is a problem with all teens today. Between Boys and Girls Girls tend to attempt suicide by overdosing on drugs or cutting themselves. Boys die by suicide about four times as often as girls, but girls think about and attempt suicide about twice as often as boys. Boys will use more lethal methods such as firearms, hanging themselves, or jumping from bridges or buildings. Who is at Risk? Growing up today as a teenager is harder than ever before. The reality is that all our teens are at risk. Today’s teens are feeling a lot of stress and worry to fit in socially, to perform academically, and to act responsibly. This is also a time of sexual identity and relationships. Teens are searching for understanding in the middle of conflicts with rules and expectations set by others such as parents, teachers, friends, etc. On top of this, now you have young people with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and more who are at higher risk for suicidal thoughts. Teens also facing major life changes such as divorce, moving, separation, military obligations, financial stresses are also at great risk. Then there is the teens feeling they are a victim of bullying that are at great risk of suicidal thoughts. Factors that increase the risk of suicide among teens include:
- a psychological disorder, especially depression, bipolar disorder, and alcohol and drug use (in fact, approximately 95% of people who die by suicide have a psychological disorder at the time of death)
- feelings of distress, irritability, or agitation
- feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness that often accompany depression
- a previous suicide attempt
- a family history of depression or suicide
- emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- lack of a support network, poor relationships with parents or peers, and feelings of social isolation
- dealing with bisexuality or homosexuality in an unsupportive family or community or hostile school environment
Red Flags and Warning SignsSuicide among teens often occurs following a stressful life event, such as problems at school, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a major family conflict. Teens who are thinking about suicide might:
- talk about suicide or death in general
- give hints that they might not be around anymore
- talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty
- pull away from friends or family
- write songs, poems, or letters about death, separation, and loss
- start giving away treasured possessions to siblings or friends
- lose the desire to take part in favorite things or activities
- have trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
- experience changes in eating or sleeping habits
- engage in risk-taking behaviors
- lose interest in school or sports
What Can Parents Do?Many teens who commit or attempt suicide have given some type of warning to loved ones ahead of time. So it’s important for parents to know the warning signs so teens who might be suicidal can get the help they need. Don’t take these signs lightly. It is better to be safe and proactive rather than be on the other side wishing you had been. Many parents and adults feel that teens who say they are going to hurt themselves are, “Just doing it for attention!” Ignoring a teens cry for help just increases the chance of them harming themselves. Teens today don’t believe in the doctor’s appointments, residential treatment, and visits to the emergency room. This isn’t what the teens want. Furthermore, teens dealing with the loss of a friend do not want counselors, doctors, therapists, pastors, or priests giving them an explanation or consoling them. In my experience, having dealt with close to 40 suicides there isn’t a textbook written that can heal the pain in today’s youth having just lost a friend. Yes, we know about coping skills and the grieving process, but today’s youth aren’t motivated to have the professional help they need. More so, think “Common Sense” when dealing with a teen in your presence that has just lost a friend. Parents need to attack the issues before they become problems where we wish we had done something to prevent such loss.
Watch and ListenBe alert for a teen that is depressed and withdrawn from others. Understanding depression in teens is very important since it can look different from commonly thought perceptions and beliefs about what depression is. Instead of sadness and crying, look for problems with friends, grades, sleep, or cranky and irritable behavior. Depression amongst teens is used very loosely. Keep the lines of communication open and express your concern, support, and love without challenging and being authoritative. If your teen trusts in you, show that you take their thoughts and concerns seriously. As simple as something might sound to you, it could be like the world is caving in on them. Teens today are having trouble with coping skills and problem solving. Don’t minimize their pain or discount what your teen is feeling at these tough times. Don’t add to their hopelessness. For them, the world is coming down on them. Your teen might be uncomfortable talking with you. Don’t get discouraged, but offer or suggest a more neutral person such as a trusted adult whom they might respect and whose opinions they might value. This could be a relative, coach, teacher, school counselor, or friend’s parents. Remember, a trusted adult will share their thoughts with you the parents. It’s ok to let go for the time being. It’s about the teen at this moment.
Don’t Be AfraidYou might be afraid to ask the question. This is the time to ask if they have been thinking about suicide or hurting themselves. Don’t fear that you might plant seeds in their head. I promise you the seeds have already been planted and the questions are being asked. You need to ask and let your teen know you care and want to help. Let your teen know that IT WILL BE OK. ALERT: Just doing a quick search for “teen depression” . . . 8,100 hits a month and “teenage depression” has 5,400. In other words , a lot of people are searching google and crying for help. This could be very difficult and a conversation you never thought you’d have to have, but it’s a good idea and shows your child you care. When you need help is when you ask the question: “Have you been having thoughts about wanting to hurt or trying to hurt yourself?” This is a major red flag. The next question to ask is: “Do you have a plan if you were to hurt yourself?” If yes, immediately seek help and know this shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Get HelpIn case of an emergency, you can call (800) SUICIDE, but often times a cry for help this should be the last resort. You want to get help immediately, but that means contacting your doctor first. Your doctor can refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Contacting your local hospital’s department of psychiatry can provide you with a list of local doctors too. In the event of a crisis situation or immediate help, your local emergency room can conduct a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation and refer you to the appropriate resources. If you’re unsure about whether you should bring your child to the emergency room, contact your doctor or call (800) SUICIDE for help. No matter what it is imperative you keep all appointments even if your teen says he or she is feeling better and doesn’t want to go. Thoughts of suicide tend to come and go, however, it is important that your teen get help developing the skills necessary to deal with pain and thoughts of suicide. Your teen can refuse going to the appointment. In this case, you should still go and work with the medical professional and find ways to help your teen want to get help. This could also be beneficial for you and the support you need to learn how to deal with and address these issues with your teen. Ongoing conflicts between parents and a child who is feeling isolated, misunderstood, devalued, or suicidal, can fuel the fire and add to their pain. Get help to address the family problems and learn to solve problems in a more constructive way. Also, let the mental health professional know if there is a history of depression, substance abuse, family violence, or other stresses at home, such as an ongoing environment of criticism.
Helping Teens Cope With LossIf your teen has experienced the loss of a friend, family member, or a classmate the first thing you should do is embrace their many emotions. Some teens feel guilty and responsible. They feel that they could have helped or they may have misunderstood the cries for help. Others feel angry with the person who committed or attempted suicide for being so selfish and not thinking about others who loved them. Still others say they feel no strong emotions or don’t know how to express how they feel. Reassure your child that there is no right or wrong way to feel, and that it’s OK to talk about it when he or she feels ready. Also, let your child know that you are there to talk or just listen. Many schools address a student’s suicide by calling in special counselors to talk with the students and help them cope. If your teen is dealing with a friend or classmate’s suicide, encourage him or her to make use of these resources or to talk to you or another trusted adult. Today’s teens don’t really seek these professionals, but with your encouragement and a few teens going together, these professionals can help a teen cope.
If You’ve Lost a Child to SuicideA parent should never have to bury their child. This is the most painful loss imaginable. For parents who’ve lost a child to suicide, the pain and grief is more intensified. Although these feelings may never completely go away, survivors of suicide can take steps to begin the healing process:
- Maintain contact with others. Suicide can be a very isolating experience for surviving family members because friends often don’t know what to say or how to help. Seek out supportive people to talk with about your child and your feelings. If those around you seem uncomfortable about reaching out, initiate the conversation and ask for their help.
- Remember that your other family members are grieving, too, and that everyone expresses grief in their own way. Your other children, in particular, may try to deal with their pain alone so as not to burden you with additional worries. Be there for each other through the tears, anger, and silences — and, if necessary, seek help and support together.
- Expect that anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays may be difficult. Important days and holidays often reawaken a sense of loss and anxiety. On those days, do what’s best for your emotional needs, whether that means surrounding yourself with family and friends or planning a quiet day of reflection.
- Understand that it’s normal to feel guilty and to question how this could have happened, but it’s also important to realize that you might never get the answers you seek. The healing that takes place over time comes from reaching a point of forgiveness — for both your child and yourself.
- Counseling and support groups can play a tremendous role in helping you to realize you are not alone. Some bereaved family members become part of the suicide prevention network that helps parents, teenagers, and schools learn how to help prevent future tragedies.