Responding to the Rise in Teen Suicide
Since 2015, in El Paso county Colorado, over 40 youths aged 10-17 have killed themselves. This number is higher than other counties in Colorado, and higher than most counties in the United States.
Since 2015, in El Paso county Colorado, over 40 youths aged 10-17 have killed themselves. This number is higher than other counties in Colorado, and higher than most counties in the United States. For every one of those children, there are countless individuals, parents, brothers and sisters, who will never fully emotionally heal. For each suicide, there are thousands of others, friends, neighbors, teachers, teammates, who will never forget. Recent studies released by the National Institutes of Mental Health report that suicides have risen 28% in the past 17 years. In 2018, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that hospital admissions for both suicidal thoughts and actions has doubled for patients aged 5-17 years of age.
What is going on?
While there are many associative factors in proximity of teen suicide. Children of all ages react strongly to issues such as the suicide of a friend, family discord, substance use, a recent argument with a parent, parental addiction, the current polarized political environment, bullying, a romantic break-up, family abuse and school pressures to succeed. Every youth that dies by suicide will have a unique combination of these factors. Every youth that dies by suicide compels us to ask, what could we have done to prevent it?
Being a teen in this decade is challenging. The age-old factors are still in play, self- esteem, depression, popularity, academic success, drugs and alcohol, but now these pressures are amplified by social media. Who appears the happiest? Who seems popular or connected or successful? Teens inadvertently are measuring themselves against social media impressions almost hourly, and every day.
What can we do?
Talk. We can talk, we can ask, we can reassure, we can hug and then we can talk again. Tell your child that no matter how bleak things may seem, there is ALWAYS a way forward. Tell them how much you love them and believe in them. And that no matter how much you may disagree with them at times, their life is unique and precious. Make them promise to never forget that you love them, and to promise that they will not harm themselves.
We can insist that prevention “Hot Lines” are on their phones and the Text Crisis Number is in their phone contacts. Be sure that your child’s friends have your contact information, and that you have theirs.
Many times, a young person who feels suicidal will not come forward and tell even a friend, let alone a parent or counselor. But many times, IF ASKED, the youth will admit they have had suicidal thoughts. The fastest rising group of suicidal youths are in grade school and middle school. While this still represents a low number of actual cases, the trend is alarming. Waiting until your child is in high school to talk about suicide prevention is waiting too late.
How Do We Increase Resilience?
As adults we know that there are times when we feel down and overwhelmed by our circumstances, confused about our future, stressed about our relationships. Teenagers have the same struggles but are less mature and often feel unequipped to handle their problems, are perhaps unwilling to open up to their parents, or peers, and have limited experience with the concept of “this too, shall pass.” Transient problems such as a bad grade, a break up or family strife can seem insurmountable, can make them feel trapped and want to escape at any cost.
As mental health professionals, we know that many teens have suicidal thoughts. And that we can help them gain perspective and increase their resiliency through therapy and sometimes medication. Therapy can give a young person a place to open up about private feelings and troubled relationships, and together the therapist and the teen can create solutions that make sense for their unique circumstances.
Suicidal thoughts become more dangerous when a teen reports an increase in their frequency or severity; a progression from the worrisome “I wish I had never been born” to the more escalated version of “I want to die” and having a specific plan and the intention to act on it.
The Good News
The good news is that we can help by not ignoring warning signs of pressures and associated family stressors. Sometimes it is helpful to begin this important conversation by asking your child about their friends.
Ask your teen if any of their friends have confided in them as having suicidal thoughts. If they answer yes, try not to overreact, and ask them what they think is going on with their friend. Express sympathy then, ask who they can talk to at school or in that friend’s home. Encourage your child to speak up on their friend’s behalf. Empower them. Make a plan with your child to contact an appropriate adult. Then ask your own child if they have ever felt that way. Even when a teen denies suicidal ideation, if they seem stressed or report feeling stressed, if the associated factors are present, bring them to a counselor that can assess them. Encourage them that even if they do not need help now, there is help available anytime and demystify the treatment channels. In the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 71% of teens in High School in El Paso County report that they have an adult to go to for help with a serious problem, and 66.1% are involved with an extracurricular activity at school, both considered to be strong protective factors against suicide. Be that adult, for your child, for any child.
Do not be afraid to ask your child about suicide. Do not be hesitant to encourage them that help and hope is available to them and to their friends.
Talk. Encourage. Hug. Repeat.