It’s Time to do Something: How to Help Prevent Teen Suicide
“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” ~ Phil Donahue
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents ages 15-24. This statistic hit home each year when local students commit suicide. It is always tragic when someone takes their own life, but I think there is something especially tragic when such a young person with a long future ahead of them can’t see any other way out.
Adolescents are especially vulnerable to depression, self-harm behavior, and suicidal ideation. Adolescence is a time of emotional, physical, and social change. Adolescents by nature are impulsive and egocentric. Small problems seem like world ending problems and they are sometimes unable to see how their decisions today may have long lasting consequences on their future. Teens also generally lack the appropriate coping skills to help them manage some of their life stressors.
As if adolescence wasn’t hard enough, the introduction of social media has increased problems tenfold. Sites like Facebook, Kick, Twitter, and Instagram, meant to connect us with our friends and family, have quickly become a venue for bullying, isolation, and uninhibited self-expression. Teens, who are impulsive by nature, post comments, videos, and pictures without fully understanding or thinking about the impact it will have on themselves and others, often for years to come. Information on the internet spreads like wildfire and communication intended for one person can be shared with the world. Despite numerous examples of this happening not only at a personal level but at a celebrity level as well, teens continue to put personal information out there.
Social media has also been used as a place for teens to reach out for help. In 2012 a video by a 10th grader named Amanda Todd went viral after she committed suicide. There have been numerous videos of a similar nature posted since by other teens struggling with bullying, depression, and suicidal thoughts. While many of these videos garner outpourings of love and support from some, they also get extremely cruel words from others. So, how do we help our teens survive the turbulent waters of adolescents safely?
When someone takes their life, it is not uncommon for people close to them to ask themselves what signs they missed and if they could have prevented what happened. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. Often it is not until after a person’s death that we are able to reflect on and recognize the cries for help and signs of desperation. It is also not uncommon for people to underestimate the seriousness of the warning signs expressed by those who are struggling. Sometimes the signs are obvious, while other times they are inconspicuous. Here are some of the common warning signs to look out for.
Frequent running away
Expressions of suicidal thoughts and talk of death
Withdrawal from friends, family, and activities
Impulsive and sometimes aggressive behavior
Alcohol and drug abuse
Engaging in high risk behaviors
Poor self esteem
Giving away meaningful belongings
Social media messages, videos, posts
One of the hardest parts of my job is knowing that I am responsible for seeing and acting on these warning signs in the children that I work with. I have had more sleepless nights than I can count wondering if I missed anything or whether I did enough to prevent something from happening. I wonder day to day if I ask the right questions, if I provide a safe enough space for a teen to share about their suicidal thoughts, or if I handled something the right way. At some point, maybe due to self-preservation, I have had to recognize that no one can read someone else’s mind and/or predict the future. However, with that being said, I do believe that working with kids is a big responsibility and should not be taken lightly. There are things that we can do.
Whether you are a parent, educator, friend, or complete stranger, there are always ways that you can help. Here are just a few:
- Learn and pay attention to the warning signs: If you notice any of the signs listed above, take it seriously and check in with the teen. Often it is other kids who see the first warning signs. Sometimes it is in the form of gossip, a text message or a youtube or facebook post. On several occasions I have had students come to me concerned about a peer’s safety. I encourage them to take any threat seriously and check in with the friend they are worried about. At school, we encourage teens to tell an adult if they are concerned about a peer. Sometimes teens are weary of making a big deal out of nothing or making their friend mad. I remind them that when all is said and done, their friend will be grateful that they cared and didn’t ignore their pain. Ultimately, many teens contemplating suicide simply want others to recognize their hurt and show that they care. By calling attention to a cry for help, you are showing the teen that they are important and that you care about them. This alone can sometimes help a child get on the path to healing.
- Ask a child if he/she is considering suicide: It is important to be direct and not dance around the word suicide. It can be a scary thing to ask and some incorrectly believe that asking about suicidal ideation will plant the idea in a teen’s head. This is simply not the case. You should ask a teen if they have any thoughts of suicide, a plan, previous attempts, access to weapons and/or a means to carry it out. Listen without judgment, share your concern, and reassure the teen that help is available.
- Seek professional help: If the teen has a plan they should be taken to the local ER or Crisis Center for an evaluation. Even as a mental health professional with training on appropriate suicide assessment, I frequently refer teens to the Crisis Center for a second opinion. I feel that the more eyes on a child the better. It also sends the message that you take their concerns seriously and want to make sure that they are safe. It is also important, if the teen is not already in therapy, to connect them with therapeutic services.
- Be a support: Whether a teen has reached out for help or not, it is important to always be available as a support. Say hi, ask a teen how their day was, and show interest in their activities. Even a stranger’s smile or recognition can make a difference. You may never know that your simple hello made someone’s life worth living another day.
- Be involved: As a parent it is important to be involved in your teen’s life. Stay up to date and check in on their social media. Encourage family time. Encourage your teen to share about their life by providing a space without judgment or punishment.
I encourage you to think about those teenagers in your life and make a special effort to be available for them and let them know that they are important and that you care. Make yourself aware of resources available in your area and be prepared to help a teen in need. Don’t wonder what you could have done; ask yourself today what you can do to help save a life.
• American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Suicide Prevention and Youth: Saving Lives. http://www.aacap.org/galleries/LegislativeAction/SuicideH.pdf
• National Association of School Psychologists: Preventing Suicide: Information for Families and Caregivers. http://www.nasponline.org/publications/cq/cq354suicide.aspx
• American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: http://www.afsp.org
• Youth Suicide Prevention Program: Information for Parents: http://www.yspp.org/publicAwareness/parents/parentAwareness.htm
• Montgomery County Crisis Center: (240) 777-4000