When I woke up this morning, I wasn’t planning on writing about teen suicide and why teens kill themselves.
I planned to slowly wake up, watch “Good Morning America” and make my way into the office without a plan.
But things change quickly, and here I am doing just that. Let’s save some lives…
I got three phone calls from three different school communities and it wasn’t yet noon. Each one of these schools had a teen suicide on campus within the past few weeks. What I heard from each individual was similar; “Jeff, do you know anything about the epidemic our community is having?”
“No. I have not heard,” I responded.
How could anybody think teen suicide is an epidemic only in their communities? They have now decided to address the heartbreaking issue of teen suicide. These kinds of phone calls are quite common and also a bit perplexing. Teen suicide is a daily occurrence around the world, and it takes place everywhere – including school communities where you would never expect it to happen. I know this because my office phone rings every day. It’s bothersome because with every phone call it seems like this is only important only after they’ve lost a student to suicide.
Why Do Something When We Haven’t Had a Teen Suicide
Let’s not have a student suicide before you ask that question. I want to educate you now so that we can intervene before this becomes a crisis in your community.
This might be an unpopular position to take, but odds are that it’s only a matter of time before your community is rocked by the loss of a student to suicide.
Are you having reports or getting referrals for strong suicidal ideation? Is this happening more than it has in the past? If this is the case, which I am quite certain it is, then we can only imagine that there is a very strong possibility of an imminent student suicide. Couple this with the growing concern about increasing numbers of students in need of mental health care and you have a perfect storm.
School administrators know they need to address teen mental health and suicide prevention, but don’t quite know how to approach it. Also, many are concerned that they might be opening up a Pandora’s box of issues they might not be prepared to handle.
And there is an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed. If you think that you are planting ideas into your students by talking about suicide, think again. Many have already thought about it. And by talking about it, you’re reducing their anxiety because they want to talk about it. The question, “why should we address suicide or mental health when there hasn’t been in issue yet” is not the correct way to think about this. What is the cost of losing a student to suicide? What effect does this have on your students, staff or the community at large? What about its toll on school morale, culture and climate – and how do you respond afterwards?
When a suicide happens, we spend a lot of time talking about what we should do – but we’re not prepared to address the how, when, where and why. As much as we prepare, we’re never totally prepared for what really happens.
One of the phone calls from this morning happened like this: A young man – a 16-year-old high school junior – came into school like he would on any other day. He wasn’t on the radar and therefore wasn’t a concern. Apparently, he showed no signs or displayed any red flags. His parents came to get him because he had recently gotten a speeding ticket.
The student asked to go to the bathroom, but when he exited the class he headed to his parents’ car and made his forever decision right there.
Mom and dad are the ones that found him. They found their son dead. In their car. In the school parking lot. The resource officer calls it on the radio. The principal and administration quickly find out and put the school on lockdown while police cars, fire trucks and EMTs are rushing to the scene. Students are in class. Teachers and staff don’t understand what is happening yet. Social media is going crazy.
Parents are calling and showing up because their kids are texting them, unsure of what’s happening or because they are hearing rumors. Teachers have to engage with the kids, but they don’t know what’s happening either.
You can’t plan for this – or can you?
Two and a half hours later they lift the lockdown. Students are then able to meet their parents in the back of the school or remain on campus. In the blink of an eye, this particular school had counselors, crisis people, pastors and plenty of help – but now they’re in recovery and reaction mode. This happened within minutes but now a school community is left with the the fallout – the forever trauma that many of these students and staff will feel for the rest of their lives.
Are we prepared? Better yet, are we doing enough in our schools to meet the mental health needs of our students so that we don’t have to address these things after a suicide? As much as our communities say that they are doing everything they can, I know from experience that this is not the case. This saddens my heart.
Schools Need to Address Teen Suicide and Teen Mental Health
We should understand why teens kill themselves long before a student makes that forever decision.
The first thing to do is to be willing to talk about it, no matter how uncomfortable that seems. In fact, we should be comfortable with being uncomfortable about it. We must also understand how critically important our schools are in reaching our kids where they are. Everybody from staff, teachers and coaches to parents and anybody who works with teens have the power to encourage a teen to ask for help – and to make them feel certain that they are not alone.
Secondly – we must make sure that we are openly addressing signs and symptoms of teen depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation – and giving students a safe place to talk without judgment.
Incorporating mental health awareness programs in the day-to-day curriculum will help students to reduce their anxiety and help them overcome their fears of not living up to the perceived expectations of others. These things can teach our youth how to cope with life and solve problems through tough times.
Check out my new curriculum on school culture. Without interrupting your school day, I can teach your staff how to me more intentional, present and fully engaged with our students. It’s about equanimity and connection while teaching our students about mind, body and soul.
Why Teens Kill Themselves
Teen suicide today is much more widespread than people are admitting – and there are a number of reasons why many our teens are depressed and thinking about taking their own lives. The video below addresses the biggest issues I find our teens are facing.
I strongly believe that smartphones, tablets and other devices are having a negative effect on their mental well-being. Isolation is toxic, and while our teens may not understand this, they are harming themselves by spending too much time alone.
If a child spends more than four or five hours a day on their device, they are 70 percent more likely to have major depression in their lives. Parents take note: This needs to be addressed at home far more than you expect it to be handled at school. Too much screen time can make a young person believe that they don’t have any meaningful relationships. They feel cut off and alone – and start to believe they are a disappointment to themselves and others. They begin to feel that they don’t make any significant contribution to the world and that they are a liability.
Why Our Teens Don’t Ask for Help
I’ll be honest. Teens don’t ask for help is because they are afraid of being judged or that their thoughts won’t be validated by a trusted adult in their lives. Let’s face it – nobody should be told what they should be thinking or feeling, or that what they are experiencing isn’t anything to be concerned about. This is not how to get your teen to want to talk to you.
Another reason could be that they don’t know how they are feeling. They don’t reach out because they don’t know what to say to express what they’re thinking. They may be confused, and many young people don’t have the problem-solving skills they need to cope – so they isolate themselves. Many teens believe they already know how you feel or believe you have your own problems to deal with, so they choose not to bother you with their issues.
I strongly encourage you to be open and inviting when your child or student wants to talk to you. Listen. Be compassionate. Be present. Validate their feelings and let them know that what they are experiencing is normal. Offer suggestions only with their permission. Don’t attempt to fix their problems for them – rather give them the leeway to sort things out in their own way. If they know they are supported and loved, they will likely ask for your advice.
When Teens Resort to Self-Harm
Alone time is one thing, but isolation is another story – and this happens with too much alone time.
If your teen is spending too much time in their bedroom, you need to address this immediately. This can be a bigger issue than you imagine. CLICK HERE for my expanded thoughts on self-harm.
Just the other day, I went to a friend’s house for some work on my yoga instruction practice. We were in the family room when the door opened from the outside.
My friend’s 11-year-old son walked in. With his head down, he said “hey.” I watched him but said nothing as he dropped his bag and walked into his bedroom. He reappeared 30 minutes later for a snack. I noticed that his curtains were drawn, and his room was dark. He quickly went back to his room in dark isolation to play video games.
I never said anything because I wasn’t at my house, and I don’t like to add my two cents around my friends and family. To them, I’m just Jeff – but this was concerning to me, and it exemplifies the landscape of our youth growing up in America today.
When a young person spends too much time alone, they start to feel alone – which to them means they don’t have meaningful relationships. When I am talking with teens and I hear these things, my next question is to the point: “Do you feel like you’re a disappointment or a burden to others or even yourself?” The answer is undoubtedly yes, and I know where this is headed.
I used to ask after this if they expressed an interest in dying, but I have learned that another popular place many young people reside is in realm of self-harm. Years ago, self-harm was much more the domain of girls. In the past couple of years, this evened out to a solid 50-50. Most recently, boys are engaging in self-harm a bit more than girls – and it looks completely different.
Self-harm is also known as non-suicidal self-injury, or NSSI. It’s not considered mental illness, but it indicates a lack of sufficient coping skills. It is also a sign of mental distress. These hurtful behaviors include cutting, hitting, or biting oneself as a coping mechanism.
Self-harm happens in people of all ages, but it is common for the behavior to start in the teen and early adult years – and a vicious cycle starts after a person engages in this activity. The person feels guilty and ashamed and does it again to deal with those feelings.
Contrary to popular belief, most people who self-harm are not in it for the attention. Most people hide it because of the stigma attached to NSSI, but if a person hopes somebody will notice, this is likely more about establishing an emotional connection with someone else who might understand what they are going through. It’s more about support far more than attention.
Just because NSSI isn’t considered suicidal behavior, this does not mean that the person engaging in it might attempt suicide in the future.
The Forever Decision
Want to know why teens kill themselves? I don’t believe teens who succeed in suicide really wanted to die. I think our youth today are caught up in living in the here and the now, but life isn’t in the here and the now.
When problems arise, many young people simply don’t possess the coping and problem-solving skills to navigate through them. It’s foreign to many teens that sometimes a problem can’t be solved immediately. They might have to work through them or face the consequences of a poor decision – and these things take time.
Too many of our youth make decisions based on emotion without really grasping the finality of suicide – and they might feel like they are alone or a disappointment or a burden. That’s a recipe for some to think they want to die, and this breaks my heart.
Please make sure your child understands that suicide is a permanent action to a temporary situation. Stop. Breathe. Take time to think. Help your child to see that what they are going through today is not permanent.
If you’re looking at bringing me to your school community, please visit www.JeffYalden.com. I also hope you consider visiting with me about my new program for schools – Schools of Intentional Learning & Living.