MENTAL ILLNESSWhile the factors I will be addressing here are all driving contributors to teen suicide, often the underlying issue is one of mental illness. Most teens who attempt suicide do so because of depression, bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. These disorders amplify the pain a teen may feel. It is because of this that every suicidal teen should be treated by a medical professional. Remember this: Teens attempt or succeed in suicide not because of a desire to die, but, rather, in an attempt to escape a bad situation and/or painful feelings. It is rare that only a single event leads to suicide. A single event can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it is quite rare a single event prompts a suicide attempt. By helping a teen turn around a bad situation or by teaching her or him how better to deal with painful feelings, we can defeat the causes of teen suicide. Most times, this requires professional help by a doctor or a psychotherapist and may also involve the teen’s school, such as in cases of teen bullying.
LONELINESSBeing a teenager is one of the most difficult phases of life. Many teenagers feel alone, isolated or somehow set apart – but they refuse to admit that they need help. They need help. They really do. Everybody needs help at times – whether it’s obvious or not, and whether we want it or not. Most of the time, we have convinced ourselves that we can manage everything on our own, but in reality, we can’t. When they feel alone, what do teenagers do? They open up their phones, computers, tablets – fire up the Internet and social media platforms or text a friend, hoping that someone does care about them – and the desire is strong that others will appreciate them for who they are. The reality is that some people appreciate you for who you are, but others simply fake it. How can you know the difference? Parents don’t understand teen problems even if they say they do. The Internet, social media, texting and YouTube is where they go to find something – the passion that they lost or the happiness that they need. It’s not that our teens think happiness is available on the Internet, but it’s a distraction from what they’re feeling. This distraction is very useful when they are feeling lonely. Imagine that they go on the web and find someone their same age, dealing with the same issues that they are. It’s comforting for them to know that they are not the only one having that particular problem. You can see their point of view. Now they’ve made friends – virtual friends that they wish were real and were right beside them. But they aren’t. Why is this? Teens say, “Why can’t we have long term and lasting friends? People talk behind our backs, especially the ones we thought were our friends.” It’s a sad world that teens say they’re living in. Adolescence is always an unsettling time, with many physical, emotional, psychological and social changes that accompany this stage of life.
SCREEN TIMEResearch suggests hours upon hours of time in front of phones, on computer screens and tablets might worsen depression and increase thoughts of suicide. Here is the deal: Depressive symptoms are more prominent in teens who spend too much time on their devices. But how much is too much? More than four a day is alarming. Ideally, we’d like to see a maximum of two hours a day of screen time for our teens. That is considered the safe zone. Nearly half of teens who got five or more hours of screen time each day had experienced thoughts of suicide or prolonged periods of hopelessness or sadness. That’s nearly double that of teens who spent fewer than an hour in front of a screen. Although we can’t blame smartphones for the increase in mental health issues in teens, I will tell you this: Smartphones and social media are by far the biggest changes in teens’ lives in the last five years. Coincidentally, over the last five years, the number of teen suicides has spiked, and this is staggering. What is further alarming is that very young children are spending triple the amount of time on phones and tablets than they did even four years ago.
APPEARANCES VERSUS REALITYTeens don’t let change happen, because when something is different, they want to change it back to normal, but what is normal today? Young people struggle with having to look good for other people, and when they do it to make a positive change for themselves, they run the risk of being judged or ridiculed. They’re not accepted for who they really are. Why We Feel Alone:
- Family problems (most of the pain comes from family issues)
- No real friends (just faces that pretend to be)
- No acceptance in society (as a whole or even in smaller groups like schools…)
- Not satisfied with their life
- Nobody understands them
- Not accepted for their choices (music artists/genre, fashion style, personality, sexual orientation, etc.)
- Prejudices (some people find it fun to criticize you)
- Rumors (it’s difficult to stop them)
- Being afraid to speak up (sharing of opinions becomes difficult, and you get trapped by your own self)
HOPELESS & HELPLESSMost teens interviewed after a suicide attempt say that feelings of hopelessness and helplessness prompted them to try to take their lives. Suicidal teens often feel like they are in situations that have no solutions. They see no way out but death. Teens often feel they lack the power and control to change their situations. Other emotional causes come from trying to escape feelings of pain, rejection, hurt, being unloved, victimization or loss – that their feelings are unbearable and will never end. They think the only way of escape is suicide.
BEING A BURDEN & FAILED EXPECTATIONSUnrealistic academic, social, or family expectations can create a strong sense of rejection and can lead to deep disappointment. When things go wrong at school or at home, teens often overreact. Many young people feel that life is not fair or that things “never go their way.” They feel stressed out and confused. To make matters worse, teens are bombarded by conflicting messages from parents, friends and society at large. Today’s teens see more of what life has to offer — both good and bad — on television, at school, in magazines and on the Internet. Dealing with Adolescent Pressures When teens feel down, there are ways they can cope with these feelings to avoid serious depression. All of these suggestions help develop a sense of acceptance and belonging that is so important to adolescents.
- Try to make new friends.Healthy relationships with peers are central to a teen’s self-esteem and provide an important social outlet.
- Participate in sports, job, school activities or hobbies.Staying busy helps teens focus on positive activities rather than negative feelings, behaviors or peer pressure.
- Join organizations that offer programs for young people.There are myriad social programs geared to the needs of teens to help develop additional interests.
- Ask a trusted adult for help.When problems are too much to handle alone, teens should not be afraid to ask for help, but adults need to be present for teens without lecturing or making them feel that their feelings aren’t valued.
SITUATIONSSituations often drive the emotional causes of suicide. Bullying, cyber bullying, abuse, a detrimental home life, loss of a loved one or even a severe breakup can be contributing causes of teen suicide. Often, many of these situations occur together to cause suicidal feelings and behaviors. Suicide is rarely the result of one factor.
GRAPHIC MEDIAIt’s amazing how much information our teens have access to on the Internet – some of which can be traumatizing. In addition to cyber bullying which is a major problem today, kids can now easily access information about how to hurt themselves or how to harm others. Today’s media continues to become more sophisticated and graphic, exposing our teens to many potentially negative and dangerous influences than their parents could ever have encountered a generation ago.
BULLYING AND CYBER-BULLYINGAny form of bullying, whether face to face or online is known to be connected to depression and suicidal behaviors in our teens.
THE DESIRE TO DIEWhile I don’t think teens want to die, I think they don’t know how to ask for help, which could lead them to the only other option they believe is available to them – Death by suicide! This saddens me the most because I think asking for help should be as easy as asking any other question. Also, I receive quite a few messages saying, “Jeff, I’m not afraid to die, but give me a reason to live that is greater than my desire to not want to live.” WOW! Today’s young people think deep. Let me leave you with this: Many parents don’t acknowledge that their child is struggling. Mental Health isn’t an option for many families, and this makes it harder for our schools to help. Many school counselors then don’t have those teens on their radar, because they don’t know what they are going through. How do you expect our schools to help when they’re not aware, and we’re dealing with parents who say they will take care of their problem at home?
THE STIGMAA large part of the work we are all responsible for is challenging the stigma that surrounds teen mental health – AND ELIMINATING IT ONCE AND FOR ALL.
THE BOTTOM LINETeens need adult guidance more than ever to understand all the emotional and physical changes they are experiencing. When teens’ moods disrupt their ability to function on a day-to-day basis, it may indicate a serious emotional or mental disorder that needs attention — adolescent depression. Take action immediately. Do something. Getting help is OK! Mental illness is an economic issue that is quickly becoming the greatest public health crisis of our time. We must take responsibility, and a large part of that responsibility lies in getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and talking about teen suicide. This is an epidemic that is alarming and getting worse. Thank you for watching this video! If you are interested in me visiting your school community, please visit www.JeffYalden.com or my non-profit foundation www.JeffYaldenFoundation.com.
IT’S OK TO ASK FOR HELPWe need to teach our young people coping skills and problem-solving skills. My friends, this is a parenting issue, but I think education needs to change. We need to focus more on social and emotional learning. We need to focus on and really build the self-esteem of our children and prepare them for life’s challenges, obstacles and situations. We need to give them the tools to be successful in life. In the meantime, we need adequate mental health care and counseling. We also need more involved parents. We need to teach our young people that it is OK to ask for help without feeling intimidated or wrong for asking. But here’s what I am seeing all too much: When suicide happens, we’re left reacting. We are emotionally reacting. Parents and community are looking to place blame on the school, the administration, or the teachers. “It’s bullying,” it’s that reason, this happened or that happened. “You’re not doing this…” STOP! Suicide is never the result of one thing. I will say that one thing can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but suicide is never the result of one thing. Also, no administrator is ever given a certificate on how to handle a suicide – whether that suicide is on campus or off campus – whether it happens in the building, outside the building – whether it is an incoming student that is relatively new to the school community or it’s a popular student athlete, adored by everyone. No student loss or suicide is ever the same. They are all different, and how they are handled isn’t really anyone’s business because the school administrator and his or her team has to think about two things – what is in the best interest of the students, and what is in the best interest of the teachers and staff members. Our job as parents is to support their decisions and accept them – especially now. Our job is to rally together and support the school, the teachers, and the administration – not just when we have loss, but every day. Our kids ask two questions, and whether you are a teacher, a coach, a parent or anyone that works with youth – we need to answer these two questions: 1) Can I trust you? 2) Do you care about me? These two questions are the cornerstone of every trusted relationship. Parents – if your if your child needs a trusted adult immediately because they are distraught and emotionally suffering more so than ever before – are you that trusted adult they would go to first? You are either saying “I don’t know,” or “probably not.”
BE THAT TRUSTED ADULTThis is a problem. Parenting today’s young people is a different game than it ever was before. Today, I would never tell a child that I am disappointed in them. The point I am trying to make here is that kids are a parent’s responsibility. Parents need to support the schools, the teachers and the staff – and our teachers and staff need to support our parents. We all need to do what is best to teach, to educate, to inspire and to encourage our youth. We all need to be trusted adults where our kids feel safe, so that they can open up to us without fear of being lectured, judged or even disappointing us. Let me tell you about teen suicide today. There are three reasons why teens choose to end their lives: 1) They feel alone. 2) They feel that they are a burden. 3) They have the desire to end it all. Let me tell you something else: The students that are on the school’s radar get help and they are taken care of. The students that aren’t asking for help are not on the school’s radar. They are the ones we find out about – and as counselors and teachers, we say, “I didn’t know.” How do we help those that aren’t asking for help? We need to do a better job to teach our kids that speaking up and saying something is the right thing to do, because our kids are on the front lines, and they find out first. Our teens want to talk to someone that understands them – someone that understands what they are going through today. They don’t want to be lectured. They want to be listened to and validated that their feelings and emotions are normal. We all need to do a better job, from our government, to our teachers and coaches, and most importantly, our parents. Our teens need to also do a much better job of asking for help when they need help. I can’t emphasize enough, my friends: It’s OK to ask for help.
SUGGESTIONS FOR MOVING FORWARDYoung people: I’d like to invite you to open your heart that you have trusted adults wanting to be there to help you answer life’s toughest questions. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help. You matter. Don’t ever think you’re alone. You matter. Don’t ever feel that you are a burden to your family or society. Parents: I need you to know that our youth today are hurting more than you can imagine – and starting earlier to feel emotions than we ever felt our own emotions when we were growing up. It’s almost like society is taking over. Parenting a child has become more difficult, with less parental influence and control. The speed of pain for a child is instant – almost as fast as turning on a light bulb. Bring the family and community priorities back. Remember things like values and morals, kindness and community pride. Love and support our schools and our youth. I challenge you to volunteer, sponsor, and donate. Give from your heart. And whatever rumors might be going around – let’s not participate. Again – suicide is never the result of one thing. Talk to your children honestly. Be careful about sugar-coating the truth, because they know so much more today than we ever did. For all adults, remember this: It takes a village to raise our children. And remember the two questions our children ask every adult in their lives: Can I trust you? Do you care about me? Be approachable so that our children know that they can safely come and talk to you, and that you are not going to judge them for their questions and thoughts. Also know that all our teachers and our school communities are hurting too. Reach out and show your support. A quick message to our teachers, staff and coaches: Thank you. Remember that you make a difference every single day. So many questions yet in many cases there are so few answers – but we are all responsible, and we need to move forward together for our youth and for each other. Think about what is in the best interest of our community. Let’s come together and respect how the school handles this on their end; the decisions need to be made, based on a comfortable balance – a comfortable balance compassionately meeting the needs of our students, their staff, their teachers and the community as a whole – while preserving the ability of the school to fulfill its primary purpose of education. This is a very sad time – a time that affects all of us. It doesn’t have to define our year, though. I’m so, so sorry and I wish I can say more. My friends, suicide and mental health are becoming an economic issue, and we need all of you to speak up. This is the greatest crisis of our time. In the words of a friend of mine: “Choose life. Choose love. Choose you.” I love you, my friends – and I am sorry for your losses. Stay beautiful, Perry Township – and I know you quite well, too. I’m sending prayers and thoughts to all of you. If you are interested in me visiting your school community, please go to www.jeffyalden.com or my nonprofit, www.jeffyaldenfoundation.com
[Tioga, N.D. is a rural community struggling with the recent losses of two young people.]
Let’s be honest. We are all a mess – and that is the common ground where we must come together and pick each other up.