How parents can help prevent teen suicide.
“My son, Tom, gave up everything and wouldn’t leave his darkened room,” says Gary Nelson, Ph.D., a pastoral counselor. “I was aware that suicide driven by mental illness is a top killer of young people, and we were terrified we would lose him,” the father said.
This serious admission is all too familiar to many families. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 2 million U.S. adolescents attempt suicide each year, and almost 700,000 receive medical attention for attempting it. The Jason Foundation, a suicide prevention organization located in Hendersonville, reports that as recently as 2007, suicide remained the third-leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds.
But why? What is behind these devastating numbers? And what do parents need to know to try and counteract potential devastation?
Karen Stough, court referral program manager and family counselor at Safe Harbor (a faith-based, national nonprofit founded by parents dealing with the uncertainty of choices made by their adolescent children) says, “The rate is rising in adolescents, and it may be due to biochemical reasons. Also, the brain is not fully mature until the early 20s. Today’s teens are so much more aware of bad things … they can begin to accept what is not normal – such as movie stars doing drugs – as the norm,” she cautions.
At the Jason Foundation, Director of Education Linda Dunlap sites pressure as a problem for teens.
“Academic pressure is higher now,” Dunlap says. Peer pressure to be liked and to fit in is strong. In addition, media and body image plays a big role in youth pressures and self-esteem issues.â€
Yet not all teens are susceptible to the problems that contribute to suicide. What’s to be done?
Determining which teen may be at-risk of committing suicide is very complex, Stough says. Many of the risk factors are typical teen behaviors. However, it’s the intensity and duration of these behaviors that parents need to watch for, Nelson explains. “Every teen gets a little upset or angry now and then, but when you start to see a pattern of holes punched in walls or a hair-trigger temper over a period of time, then you see this is not just a rebellious teen,” he says.
According to NAMI, factors can include the breakup of a relationship, failing a big exam or other major disappointments. NAMI adds, “Suicide is thought by some to have a genetic component, to run in families. And research has shown strong evidence that mental and substance-related disorders, which commonly affect those who end up committing suicide, do run in families.â€
Nelson adds, “More and more what we’re discovering is that there is a real strong genetic predisposition for this. Oftentimes folks who are depressed keep racking their brains to find out what caused it. You have to recognize that no one caused it. Certainly, difficult home situations can contribute, but for many, they can’t say it was this or that or this.â€
NAMI also reports that some research has linked a low level of serotonin, which helps control impulsivity, to suicide attempts. Antidepressants affecting this brain chemical are used to treat depression, impulse control and suicidal thoughts. But much more study is needed to confirm this theory.
“The three baseballs Tom hurled through the downstairs hallway wall were the first in a long series of his actions and reactions totally baffling to [my wife] Patti and me,” Nelson writes in A Relentless Hope: Surviving the Storm of Teen Depression (Cascade Books; $18), a book about his family’s long, dark journey. “Never had we witnessed such behavior in our home. Never had disagreements or arguments been punctuated by acts of violence. Yet, there they were, the three round holes in the wall, marking the end of a discussion and the beginning of a nightmare.â€
Be Aware, Be Involved
Most experts say the best thing you can do is to be involved in your teen’s life. Know who their friends are, what activities they are involved in, where they go and what they do. If you know their everyday life, you’re more likely to notice when something changes.
“It’s better to err on the side of safety if you see some danger signs,” Stough says. “If you pay attention and are involved, you’ll be able to tell the difference between normal teen behavior and behavior that could lead to suicide.â€
Nelson says it’s critical that parents be willing to take a step back and see the behavior from a different perspective. “For all of us as parents, when our teen starts to act out in some way our first response is, â€˜Well, I’ll show you,’ and we apply the discipline thing. But if you stop and say, â€˜Wait a minute. My child knows if they do the right thing, they’re going to get a reward. Why would they choose not to do that and do something that will get them in more and more trouble and cause them to fall further behind?’ You might see that there’s more to the situation.â€
Nelson continues, “Parents should be aware of these kinds of issues and as early as possible seek help. If you start to see your child struggling and there’s no specific cause, or you see a cluster of symptoms, early intervention is best. Get help before your teen has a chance to get into things such as drugs and alcohol that can cause lots of complications.â€
Changes in Personality
If you notice your child has changed, the first thing you must do is talk. NAMI points out, “The most important thing to do if you think a loved one is suicidal is to communicate with him openly and frequently. Be sure to take all talk of suicide seriously. An estimated 80 percent of all those who commit suicide give some warning of their intentions or mention their feelings to a friend or family member.â€
Stough adds, “Talk to your child at a place and time that’s not embarrassing. Say something like, â€˜I’ve been noticing some changes and I’m concerned. What’s going on?’ Ask if he’s thinking of hurting himself, find out if he has a plan. Try to help him see that a temporary situation doesn’t need a permanent solution.â€
How to Intervene
Seek help immediately if you feel your child is struggling. “Get help, get information, get education about what might be going on. Seek out a professional,” Nelson says. “A professional can help parents understand their child differently and can give teens coping skills.â€
And don’t lose sight of the big picture, Dunlap says.
“Parents need to remember what it was like to be a teen. It wasn’t always great even for themselves. Keep the lines of communication open and validate the problems and pressures that your children feel and experience. Don’t minimize their worries, fears and feelings,” says Dunlap.
Additionally, according to NAMI, “If the threat is immediate, if your friend or loved one tells you he is going to commit suicide, you must act immediately. Don’t leave the person alone, and don’t try to argue. Instead, ask questions like, â€˜Have you thought about how you’d do it?’ â€˜Do you have the means?’ and â€˜Have you decided when you’ll do it?’
If there is a defined plan, the means are easily available, the method is a lethal one and the time is set, the risk of suicide is obviously severe. In such an instance, you must take your teen to the nearest psychiatric facility or hospital emergency room. If you are together on the phone, you may even need to call 911 or the police. Remember, under such circumstances no actions on your part should be considered too extreme – you are trying to save a life. Take all threats seriously.â€
Keep the Vigil
Just because a teen is in treatment or says he’s feeling better does not mean the threat is over. “A severely depressed child will suddenly begin to give away favorite possessions, and that is a huge sign of suicide,” Stough explains. “They think, â€˜I’ll give these to my friends so they can enjoy them because I’m not going to be here.’â€
If your teen suddenly seems at peace after being depressed, it may be that he has a plan and feels that the pain is about to end. According to NAMI, it’s not good to monitor every action of someone who is recovering from suicidal thoughts, but it is important to make certain that the lines of communication between you and your teen remain open.
You may want to be your child’s best friend, but it’s important to remember that being a parent comes first.
Nelson says, “To help these teens requires all kinds of experimentation. Something that works this week may not work next week. Don’t do anything to hurt the relationship. Just keep loving them.â€
Tiffani Hill-Patterson writes about parenting, fitness and health.
Don’t ignore parental instincts that alert you to danger for your child.
If you feel your teen is in imminent danger of suicide, call 911 immediately. If you feel your child may be thinking of suicide for the future, contact your medical doctor or a mental health professional as soon as possible. Your doctor can help you find a mental health professional for your child.
Visit the Jason Foundation Web site at jasonfoundation.com for additional parent resources.