Suicide is a word that tends to bring about a sense of shock and discomfort in most. It brings about a variety of interchanging emotions that includes the familiar emotional responses to grief and loss: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In their grief process, a person will vacillate between these emotional states. In cases of suicide, however, the family and friends left behind not only grapple with these familiar emotions, but are also likely to struggle with feelings of shame and confusion while often second-guessing their role wondering what could have been done differently. Due to the fact that reasons behind suicide are so very complex, the surviving family and friends may agonize for years over a plethora of unanswered questions and persistent feelings of self-doubt. This can result in chronic feelings of hopelessness and depression that envelops them making it extremely difficult to move forward.
According to 2010 national statistics reported by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), suicide claims the lives of over 38,000 individuals in the United States each year. Suicide is ranked the 10th leading cause of death in the United States among all age groups; it is the fourth leading cause of death among 5-14 year olds; and is the third leading cause of death for people age 15-24. Recent data also show that 90 percent of those who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness at the time of death. Nobody is exempt, which is why equipping ourselves with preventative information such as warning signs and resources is absolutely imperative to better communicate with our youth.
Taboo Thinking About Teen Suicide
Despite this ongoing public health problem, the topic of suicide remains a taboo subject for many. There is a great deal of fear attached to the concept of teen suicide. The most common fear is the concern for contagion. This is an understandable concern that entailed discussion about an act or acts of suicide will lead others to follow suit. However, an indisputable fact is that ignoring the issue will not alleviate this problem. It is also clear that the reporting of this topic can negatively impact viewers if done incorrectly, which is an understandable reason why this topic is often avoided. The discussion of suicide is a difficult topic, but one worthy of discussion. It is both important and potentially influential requiring careful planning around how it is broached.
There is a helpful website that provides a resource on ways to sensitively report the topic of suicide without sensationalizing the act or drawing focus on the methodology used. They point out that reporting on suicide does not have to be lengthy or in-depth to positively reach and educate the public. In fact, over exposure of the subject, such as repetitive and exploitative coverage is not recommended. The site links to an informative article “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide” that provides helpful key points and information based on evidence-based data pertaining to suicide. The article also provides suggestions and examples to help guide a responsible conversation.
Schools can take the lead by collaborating with public and/or private mental health centers (in addition with their parent community) to have counselors volunteer their time to be available to students and staff to process feelings around the suicide. It is also helpful to distribute tips to parents on how to sensitively communicate with their children around the death. The media can also do their part by reporting factual, accurate data surrounding suicide, and use the opportunity to educate the public on warning signs and treatment resources. The media can also help by taking the lead in a campaign toward removing the stigma of mental health diagnosis and treatment. For those who are apprehensive about addressing this need with open communication in the school setting, go to the Facebook or My Space page of a child who ended their life and you will see a memorial with in-depth thoughts from peers. You may then recognize that the discussion is already happening. While this venue can be cathartic for many, disturbing posts from peers who are struggling with their own mental health and/or substance abuse issues are not always helpful to themselves or their peers. Some romanticize the concept of death by suicide, spreading the notion that suicide is a logical option despite there being a lack of mental/developmental ability or know-how to make an informed decision, therefore, fully understanding all of the consequences of that decision.
Adolescence is a time of establishing identity. It is a time where kids try on who they are while trying to ascertain where they fit in among peers. This can be a trying and stressful time especially if who you are doesn’t quite fit in with the “norm” of the crowd or societal expectations. Something to keep in mind about suicide is that it is rare for one specific incident to drive a person to the depth of despair leading them to take their own life. It is more common for there to be a series of stressors and depression present. There can be several contributing risk factors for teen suicide . Many people have the internal and external resources to cope with normal life stressors without getting to the point of suicidal thoughts. In ninety percent of completed suicides there is a presenting psychiatric problem that impedes with functioning and coping abilities.
Here is a list of warning signs for youth who may be considering suicide:
- talk about suicide or death in general
- give hints that they might not be around anymore
- talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty
- pull away from friends or family
- write songs, poems, or letters about death, separation, and loss
- start giving away treasured possessions to siblings or friends
- lose the desire to take part in favorite things or activities
- have trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
- experience changes in eating or sleeping habits
- engage in risk-taking behaviors
- lose interest in school or sports
Complicating Factors to Teen Suicide
Social media sites, such as Facebook, are intended to increase social connection, but there are certain drawbacks. Present day technology allows for exposure of personal thoughts, embarrassing incidents, and lends to bullying. Youth are faced with tremendous pressure and challenges today that they are just not always developmentally capable to fully deal with on their own. They have access to unlimited amounts of information in this day and age of technology. Today, youth bare their most private thoughts in a public setting making them a prime target for bullies. That same public forum (in addition to the technology of video, text, and email messages) has made it all too easy for bullying behavior to move beyond the classroom or neighborhood to the World Wide Web. This raw exposure makes it seemingly impossible to continue to keep getting up to fight another fight. Building resiliency in our kids is a must in addition to a firm hand with bullying behavior. Communication and support are instrumental resources for parents and educators to help youth with some difficult adolescent struggles. Observing for warning signs and preparing a safety plan, if warning signs are identified, is vital information for any and every one.
Considerations About Teen Suicide
Suicide impacts all walks of life from the poor to the wealthy, to the young and to the old, yet it is a preventable death. In most cases there is a diagnosable psychiatric condition at the time of death. Continued efforts to normalize psychiatric disorders and remove the stigma from the treatment of these disorders will be beneficial in the efforts of suicide prevention. The current anti-bullying initiatives across the nation are also highly important.
There are devastating residual effects left behind for the surviving family and friends of the person who took their life. Many of these survivors experience subsequent consequences such as substance abuse issues, mental health issues, and suicidal ideation, particularly if they do not seek out help. Support outreach services/resources must continue to grow to include common practice of mental health clinicians to be available to communities who experience teen suicide. Responsible and informed journalism should take place to support the efforts of suicide prevention instead of the current “hands off” approach.
I was recently at a suicide prevention walk through the AFSP in a community that had experienced several teen suicides in a short span of time. There were many impactful stories. I fully anticipated seeing local television coverage on this event to help shed light on the issue of teen suicide, but sadly I did not. Society’s discomfort and fear of teen suicide was apparent on this day. Shedding light on teen suicide is needed in order to face the conundrum of this devastating public health issue.
To find ways to become involved and/or locate prevention resources and activities in your community, check out the links provided throughout this article.
Resource for teens:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline