Teen Suicide Prevention
Suicide prevention, cyberbullying and the toxic society in which we are raising our kids
On Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012, my dear childhood friend’s daughter committed suicide at the age of 15. This was a beautiful girl in a loving, faith-filled family who had a bright future ahead of her. If it can happen to Grace, it can happen to anyone.
Her story is not uncommon. She was cyberbullied by a fellow classmate and friend who raped her and then bragged about it on social media. She was ostracized by peers and the bullying was relentless. Attempts to bring the situation to justice were stonewalled by law officials and school administrators. Her family got her psychiatric help, but the high school peer pressure was overwhelming. Tragically, her only escape was to take her own life.
Her parents have successfully lobbied for anti cyber bullying laws in Maryland where they live. They have established a foundation, G.R.A.C.E. in her honor. Giving Respect and Compassion to Everyone. Hopefully this law and similar laws in other states will allow such situations to be brought to justice. Hopefully this program will bring attention to the toxic environment in which we are raising our children. But none of this will bring Grace back. And there is a giant hole in the hearts of her family, friends and community.
In 2016, suicide was the second leading cause of death among both 10-14 years old (436) and 15-24 years old (5,723) according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
We have an epidemic of anxiety and depression in our youth. I wish we had a vaccination for it! I see more troubled teens today than ear infections and this is a dramatic change during my career. There are many factors, but I believe these are the most common, based on talking to these kids. All of these kids are amazing, talented, gifted, bright with so much to offer the world, yet they don’t see their worth. Why?
- Our society is fixated on achievement and loses sight of the importance of what we do with our gifts and talents. Only one person can be #1. Does that make everyone else a failure. Of course not, but that is the message our kids are getting.
- Our society is fixated on perfection. If this is our aim, we fail every day. Mistakes, imperfections, changes in direction – this is how we learn and grow. It is ok.
- I’m calling out parents, here (myself included). We try to shelter our kids from disappointment. In doing so we deprive them of the ability to solve their own problems and realize that life goes on. We send them a message that they can’t handle the bumps in life and so they don’t.
- Another thing we do is fail to “own” our own imperfections. Point them out to your kids. Let them see you as less than perfect, but willing to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.
- The fixation on achievement (see above) leads to terrible self care, sacrificing nutrition, exercise, sleep and peace in the pursuit of heaven knows what. More items on the resume.
- Social media and media in general add a facet that we as parents didn’t have to deal with growing up. There is no refuge. Social media follows you into your bedroom. It used to be when you got home you were safe from all that. Kids are so vulnerable to feeling left out when others post on social media and they aren’t included. They don’t understand that people only post the best stuff, not the mundane, ordinary stuff of day to day life or their struggles. Sometimes it’s hard to see this as an adult. Imagine your 16 year old self navigating this minefield.
What can we do as parents, friends, teachers, a community?
- Depression is treatable. Don’t let your teen’s depression or anxiety snowball. Talk with your teen about his or her feelings and contact your pediatrician to find solutions.
- It's important for parents to learn about the factors that can put a teen at risk for suicide. The more you know, the better you'll be prepared for understanding what can put your child at risk.
- Major loss (i.e., break up or death)
- Substance use
- Peer or social pressure
- Access to weapons
- Public humiliation
- Severe chronic pain
- Chronic medical condition
- Family history of suicide
If your instinct tells you that a teenager might be a danger to himself, heed your instincts and don't allow him to be left alone. In this situation, it is better to overreact than to underreact. See How to Communicate With and Listen to Your Teen.
Never shrug off threats of suicide as typical teenage melodrama.
Any written or verbal statement of "I want to die" or "I don't care anymore" should be treated seriously. Often, children who attempt suicide had been telling their parents repeatedly that they intended to kill themselves. Most research supports that people who openly threaten suicide don't really intend to take their own lives; and that the threat is a desperate plea for help. While that is true much of the time, what mother or father would want to risk being wrong?
Any of these other red flags warrants your immediate attention and action by seeking professional help right away:
- "Nothing matters."
- "I wonder how many people would come to my funeral?"
- "Sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep and never wake up."
- "Everyone would be better off without me."
- "You won't have to worry about me much longer."
When a teenager starts dropping comments like the ones above or comes right out and admits to feeling suicidal, try not to react with shock ("What are you, crazy?!") or scorn ("That's a ridiculous thing to say!"). Above all, don't tell him or her, "You don't mean that!." Be willing to listen nonjudgmentally to what he or she is really saying, which is: "I need your love and attention because I'm in tremendous pain, and I can't seem to stop it on my own."
To see your child so troubled is hard for any parent. Nevertheless, the immediate focus has to be on consoling; you'll tend to your feelings later. In a calm voice, you might say,"I see. You must really, really be hurting inside."
Seek professional help right away.
If your teenager's behavior has you concerned, don't wait to contact your pediatrician. Contact a local mental health provider who works with children to have your child or youth evaluated as soon as possible so that your son or daughter can start therapy or counseling if he or she is not in danger of self-harm. However, call your local mental health crisis support team or go to your local emergency room if you think your child is actively suicidal and in danger of self-harm.
Share your feelings.
Let your teen know he or she is not alone and that everyone feels sad or depressed or anxious now and then, including moms and dads. Without minimizing his anguish, be reassuring that these bad times won't last forever. Things truly will get better and you will help get your child through counseling and other treatment to help make things better for him or her..
Encourage your teen not isolate himself or herself from family and friends.
It's usually better to be around other people than to be alone. But don't push if he says no.
Recommend prayer and support from your faith family.
If your faith life is important to you and your child, this is an amazing gift. You can remind your child that no matter the circumstance, God is in control. God can bring meaning out of any circumstance and is always merciful and forgiving. Encourage your son or daughter to dive deeper into his or her faith life to fill the holes that can never be achieved by the pursuit of worldly success.
Physical activity as simple as walking or as vigorous as pumping iron can put the brakes on mild to moderate depression.
Urge your teen not to demand too much of himself or herself.
Until therapy begins to take effect, this is probably not the time to assume responsibilities that could prove overwhelming. Suggest that he or she divide large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones whenever possible and participate in favorite, low-stress activities. The goal is to rebuild confidence and self-esteem.
Remind your teen who is undergoing treatment not to expect immediate results.
Talk therapy and/or medication usually take time to improve mood. Your child shouldn't become discouraged if he or she doesn't feel better right away.
If you keep guns at home, store them safely or move all firearms elsewhere until the crisis has passed.
- Fact: Suicide by firearm among American youth topped a 12-year high in 2013, with most of the deaths involving a gun belonging to a family member, according to a report from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Any of these deaths may have been prevented if a gun wasn't available.
If you suspect your child might be suicidal, it is extremely important to keep all firearms, alcohol, and medications under lock and key.
We are here to help. Please contact us if you have concerns about your child’s mental health. We screen for depression at your annual well check, but that is only once a year. The dialogue must be ongoing.
I want to prevent tragedies such as what happened to my friend and her beautiful daughter, Grace.
- Mental Health and Teens: Watch for Danger Signs
- Which Kids are at the Highest Risk for Suicide?
- Talking About 13 Reasons Why & Teen Suicide: Tips for Parents
- Adolescent Depression: What Parents Can Do To Help
- ON Facebook: Grace K. McComas Memorial Webpage