Deterring this all-too-frequent cause of death in teenagers and young adults begins with sensitivity, openness, and an active involvement in the life of a troubled youth.
Like adults, teenagers can sometimes be consumed by their perceived problems. If you suspect a teen may be contemplating suicide, help him realize that the pain he feels is a transient, not permanent, condition.
Stephen, 16, an honors student, returned home from school and, in a moment of agonizing depression, placed a rifle under his chin. Calmly, he pulled the trigger, but the gun did not go off.
After wrestling with the intense pain of migraine headaches, Candice, 18, took an overdose of prescription medication late at night. Fortunately, her father checked on her before going to bed and had Candice rushed to an emergency room where she was treated and released.
Those attempts at suicide were unsuccessful, but many other families are not as fortunate. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, suicide is the third leading cause of death in teens and young adults, following accidents and homicides. And research by the American Association of Suicidology reveals these alarming trends:
- Over the past 35 years, the youth suicide rate has tripled.
- During the school year in a typical high school, one boy and two girls attempt suicide.
- Fourteen percent of all adolescents reported that they had attempted suicide.
However, no one is 100 percent suicidal or beyond hope and help, and it is possible to prevent many teen suicides. This does not require great training but simply a sensitivity, openness, and willingness to be involved in the life of an upset teen. Here are some keys for effective suicide prevention:
Be sensitive to the plight of teenagers. Like adults, teenagers are stressed, anxious, worried, concerned, and, sometimes, consumed by their perceived problems.
If you are a parent, spend more one-on-one time with your teen. A concerned adult should try to get to know the teens in the neighborhood, school, community, or church. Learn their names; smile when you greet them. Let them know you care and are concerned about them; extend kindness and compassion to them.
Recognize and respond to the warning signs of suicide risk. “The saddest and most common phrase heard by someone who deals with suicide is ‘I didn’t think he’d really do it,'” writes Jan Fawcett, M.D., in a pamphlet, Before It’s Too Late (American Association of Suicidology). “In case after case,” Dr. Fawcett points out, “people have seen clear signs of suicidal behavior but have refused to believe that the danger was real and have failed to do anything about it. As a result, many people die whose lives could have been saved.”
The following are among the most common warning signs that a teen may be at high risk for suicide:
- mood swings, changes in personality;
- changes in sleep patterns: too much sleeping or too little;
- changes in eating habits: loss of weight or rapid weight gain;
- loss of interest in friends, hobbies, and activities previously enjoyed;
- feelings of hopelessness and helplessness;
- increasing anxiety about popularity, fitting in, being accepted;
- drug and/or alcohol abuse;
- giving away prized possessions;
- talk and preoccupation with death and dying;
- previous suicide attempts;
- conflicts with family, peers, boyfriends, girlfriends;
- drastic changes in appearance;
- social withdrawal or increasing isolation.
Invite a troubled teen to ventilate. If you suspect a teenager may be contemplating suicide, make yourself available to him or her. Allow the teen to express feelings in a way that leads to a better understanding of those feelings.
Begin by asking: “You seem upset. Can you tell me what’s bothering you? I’d be glad to listen.” Or: “You look as though you are about to cry. Perhaps if you told me how you feel, I might understand.”
A person considering suicide is often looking for someone with whom they can share their thoughts and feelings. As the teen speaks, respond with gentle questions that open the discussion further: “How do you feel about that?” “How did that make you feel?” “Did that hurt your feelings?” “What are you feeling now, this very moment?” Allow your verbal responses and body language to convey empathy, acceptance, and a willingness to listen patiently.
Listen with your heart. Give a troubled youth a piece of your heart, not a piece of your mind.
The best way to demonstrate caring is by listening compassionately and taking seriously his or her issues.
“The helper can take a giant step forward by demonstrating an unshakable attitude of acceptance toward the perturbed person,” Rabbi Earl Grollman advises in his bookSuicide: Prevention, Intervention, Postvention (Beacon Press). “This is not the moment of moralizing, but for loving support. Instead of chastisement, the disquieted person should be put at ease and made to feel understood.”
Help build hope. Prevent a suicide by helping a teen realize that there are other choices and options, that the pain they currently feel is a transient, not permanent, condition. Most teens contemplating suicide are greatly ambivalent and undecided. They are wrestling with ultimate choices—the pain of death or the pain of life.
“Try to discover what still matters to him. What does he still value?” Rabbi Grollman offers. “Watch for signs of animation when the ‘best things’ are touched on (noting especially his eyes)…Is there not some ray of hope? Hope moves a person out of suicidal preoccupation.”
Get professional help. If you suspect, even remotely, that the suicide risk is high, get professional help immediately! Make an appointment with a therapist. Take your child to a crisis intervention center. Admit him or her to a hospital.
Make it clear that you are not abandoning or deserting your child—that you will be there for him or her. Brent Hafen and Kathryn Jrandsen, authors of Youth Suicide: Depression and Loneliness (Behavioral Health Association), suggest taking this approach: “You might…say something like, ‘I love you too much to see you take this drastic action, but I’m not sure what to do to help. I’m going to take you to the crisis intervention center, because there are people there who will know what to do. Together, we can work this out.'”
Finally, always be bold in expressing your love, support, and admiration for your teenager. Be even more expressive when you know your teen is struggling with issues that seem overwhelming. Don’t hesitate to tell him how much you love him, how devastated you would be if he were dead. Assure and reassure her that you want more than anything for her to stay alive and work out her problems. Your teen desperately needs to know that you love and care for him or her.
Awareness, sensitivity, and love are the ingredients that make suicide a preventable problem.
Victor M. Parachin, an ordained minister and former newspaper reporter, is the author of nine books, most recently, Healing Grief (Chalice Press, 2001).
WHERE TO GET MORE HELP AND INFORMATION
American Association of Suicidology
National Hopeline Network
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
Also, help can be found through local community organizations and resources such as