It is difficult to look too closely at what baffles and terrifies us— teen suicide is one of those realities.
- Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. for young people between the ages or 10 and 24 years.
- The National Institute of Mental Health believes that there may be as many as 25 attempted suicides for every teen who dies by suicide.
- The frightening part is that attempting suicide is one of the strongest predictors of a completed suicide.
The Need for Information
In a recent telephone survey of 320 people, almost 20% of the total sample claimed to be both affected by a suicide death and identified themselves as survivors. Of considerable concern is the fact that these survivors were no more likely than the general public to feel that suicide is preventable, to know about warning signs of suicide, or to have knowledge of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The Need to Speak About Suicide
Speaking about suicide does not plant the idea. Kids know about suicide from suicidal peers as well as the media. They just may not know how to speak about it. Dr. Maureen Underwood, author of Lifelines: A Suicide Prevention Program reports that in 30 years of training in suicide prevention there has never been a case of planting the ideas. There are not only numerous examples of research and intervention without harm; but examples of kids who have saved other kids by learning to speak about suicide to parents and teachers.
The Need for Connection
In suicide assessment, protective factors are reasons to live. They may include social support, self-esteem, spirituality, and life satisfaction. A recent study found that the factor that most significantly buffered suicidal ideation was perception of social support.
The more parents, teens and their friends recognize the warning signs of suicide and understand the importance of their connection in prevention—the safer teens will be.
What Are the Warning Signs?
The warning signs of teen suicide are often reflected in different ways across the dimensions of a teen’s feelings and behavior. The Society for Prevention of Teen Suicide uses the Acronym “FACTS” as a guide for keeping possible warning signs in mind: F (Feelings), A (Actions), C (Changes in Patterns), T (Threats) and S (Situations).
Feelings–Untreated depression is considered the single most significant risk factor for completed suicide in adolescents. A teen may express depression in feelings of sadness, lethargy, hopelessness, loneliness, guilt, shame, anxiety or worry. Often there is an expression of self-deprecation that will never change – “I’ll always be a loser.”
Actions–The behavior of teens is important to consider because depression in teens is often masked by use of drugs and alcohol, which become very dangerous. Depression in teens is also masked by irritability, cutting, school problems and “acting out” behavior. This can show as risk taking behavior, promiscuity, and defiance of curfews or parental requests. Too often the teen’s provocative behavior results in cycles of fighting and animosity that create distance between parent and teen. – “Just leave me alone – Get off my back!”
Changes—At times, no one knows their teen like the parent. Changes in personality and day-to-day patterns of sleeping, eating, involvement with friends, interest in activities, and sudden elation after being depressed are signs that warrant attention.
When one mother heard that her college freshman son had quit the soccer team and was unhappy with his roommates — she got into her car and drove 4 hours to see him.
Sometimes it is a teen who realizes their friend is acting different in a way that worries or frightens them.
When one teenage girl became worried about her friend, it was her Dad who picked up the worry and asked if he could help – they both did.
Threats—Any verbalized or veiled threat like, “Who cares if I’m dead or alive, anyway?” said directly, posted on face book, sent as emails or sudden interest in death and dying in the news, removal of prescription medication from its usual spot etc., cannot be ignored.
Situations of Risk– there are certain situations that may jeopardize a teen’s coping capacity and increase the chances of feeling there is no solution–no way to stop the pain.These can include:
Prior Suicide Attempt
Bullying and Cyberbullying
Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered Youth (victimization and bullying, fear of family reactions, shame, or guilt with lack of support)
Exposure to the Suicide of a Close Friend or School Peer
Family History of Suicide
Death of a Parent or Sibling
Responding to Warning Signs and Staying Connected
Speaking to Your Teen-Parents are often on a “ need to know” basis with their teens and speaking is the last thing their teen wants. When you sense or see the warning signs, move in closer with concern rather than criticism. The important thing is being authentic and sharing your love and concern.
- “I know we have been yelling at each other lately but it dawned on me that you have been struggling. I almost missed it. I want to help…”
- “I notice that you haven’t been sleeping. That happens to me when I’m worried or upset. Are you feeling that way some nights?”
Asking your teen about suicide does not cause it. As one mother said to me “I had to ask him if he was suicidal because if he was – he would have been alone with it.”
Acting on What You Hear
If you think your child is actively suicidal or can be – bring him/her to an emergency room. In addition, you and your child can get help and resources from organizations like the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK (8255) and The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide. Often the school or family physician can also steer a parent in the direction of local mental health professionals and resources.
Just as intolerable emotional pain, depression and acting out patterns do not emerge in a day – such feelings don’t disappear in a day. It takes “ staying connected”– changing plans to be home with teens, driving together each morning, touching base for an evening snack, going together to therapy, seeking help to stop bullying–to find a way out of the pain. In this regard, think of it as joint or combined effort to support the reasons to live.
Teen “Buddy Care”
Much like other insider groups, teens often have a code of silence that keeps adults “out of the loop.” When teens know the warning signs and become aware that they can help each other by seeking help together if necessary, they protect each other.
“ I’ll go with you to Mrs. Smith—She is someone we can trust.”
Teens are often more eager to help each other than themselves. Central to teen suicide prevention is a teen’s recognition that telling a parent or another adult about their friend’s desperation or suicide attempt doesn’t betray a friend – it saves a life.
Teen Suicide can be prevented. When there is recognition, understanding, connection and proper care—despair can become hope.