The month of September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, sitting at the #10 spot. It is the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 15-24. We have all been touched by suicide in some way or another. I personally know people who have attempted suicide and those who have been successful in doing so. It is absolutely heartbreaking to know that more 15-24 year olds would rather take their own lives than to continue on living. Knowing the signs of an individual in crisis can make all the difference in the world. This week is Youth Suicide Prevention Week – September 8-14; and as a parent of two young children I have to be concerned. I know that the week has passed, but as the parent of a high school student I wanted to see if her school would acknowledge the past week as being Youth Suicide Prevention Week as it would impact the demographics in their school…radio silence. I received no emails or communications from the school acknowledging that they were even aware of the fact. My daughter tells me pretty much everything that goes on and she didn’t tell me anything as well. Any parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend of the family or loved one must be concerned because the statistics for youth suicide are ALARMING! Youth suicide is when a young person, generally categorized as someone below the age of 21, deliberately ends their own life. The rate of youth suicide in the United States has risen to a 20 year high and it is the second leading cause of death among youth which I previously mentioned. The approximate number of high school students that report attempting suicide is 1 out of 15…let that sink in. So for every 15 students you ask, at least 1 will say that they have attempted suicide, and that is just based on those that reported. My daughter attends a small private high school with around 390 students, statistically 26 students have attempted suicide. That may not seem like a lot, but if you’re a human being with feelings and emotions – 1 is a lot. What is happening in our communities, our homes, our schools and in our day to day interactions that is causing such troubling numbers? First of all, children and young adults are experiencing hormonal changes earlier and earlier which affects body image, brain chemistry and their overall way of how they see themselves. When you add in all the additional stressors such as friendships, problems in school, familial changes like a divorce or a move; the scales can dramatically tip. We also find children and young adults have easier access to guns, prescription medications and other tools that would aid in ending their lives. I stopped watching the news for over a month because I heard a report that an 9 year old committed suicide. A 9 YEAR OLD! What could possibly be going on? She was being relentlessly bullied at school and nothing was being done about it. She felt her only resolve was to take her life! Someone has to be the voice of these children and advocate for them and it is up to all of us to do our part.
Suicide is something that very rarely happens without warning. The signs are there, you just have to know what to look for. In today’s reality it is rare that young children and young adults do not have a presence on social media. When I first allowed my daughter to get a social media account, I had to follow her and I still follow her. I checked her electronics without warning so as to not allow any time for anything to be deleted. Some may think that there is an “invasion of privacy” or a violation of privacy here; but my child, my house, my rules. If someone is harassing my child on social media I want to know. She knows that she can tell me anything, but even when you know that you can tell your parents anything you don’t always do it. That is the case with the majority of all children and young adults. They find themselves in situations where they feel or may be told that situation is their fault. This may leave them feeling a myriad of emotions: hopeless, helpless, depressed and desperate. When these feelings arise you will begin to notice a change in a person’s behavior – especially if they are pretty predictable or follow a certain routine. For instance, if an individual is usually active in social media and all of sudden there is radio silence; this can be a red flag. Yes, people take breaks from social media, but what child, teen or young adult do you know that doesn’t document most of their lives across Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat? My daughter tells me that Facebook is for old people so I guess I won’t include that platform…I don’t even have a Facebook account and I’m almost 40. Suicide is most often linked to some form of mental illness like depression, but sudden and ongoing traumatic events can also trigger an individuals desire to end their life. It is important that we listen, be present and ask our friends and children how they are doing, let them know we are there for them and we are a listening ear when they need one. If everyone of us said one kind thing to someone everyday it could mean the difference in someone’s life who’s having a tough time and we may not know about it. So I encourage you to sincerely inquire:
- How was your day?
- Is there something special going on in your life?
- Is everything going well at school? At home? At work?
- Is there something you feel you need to talk about?
It may sound cliche, but there is nothing cliche about a person’s well-being or the possibility they may commit suicide. My daughter talks about a teacher that asks them what some would call “probing questions.” So I asked her what she meant when she said that her teacher asks them all sorts of questions? She said that she will ask someone who looks tired – “Is everything ok?” “Are you getting enough rest?” As well as general questions about school and home. Once she told me in depth about the questions the teacher was asking, I explained to her that the teacher is checking on you guys. It is her job as your teacher, as an educator to make sure her students are well mentally and physically. I told her not to label her as “nosy” but someone who is concerned and wants to make sure that one of your classmates has not intention to harm themselves or others. I wanted to carefully write this piece because it is important and I have a child that falls within these demographics. She also has a heavy workload at school and responsibilities outside of school and home with extracurricular activities that can cause her to feel overwhelmed. We had a conversation recently where she told me about how one of her senior classmates had a total meltdown because she felt overwhelmed by her course load and the fact that she had to meet deadlines for college applications and even missed some. This young lady was in tears in class saying how much work she had to do, how much extra stuff outside of school, college entrance exams, and that she was never going to get into a good college and she was going to end up homeless and on the street. I told my daughter that she was exaggerating what her classmate said and she told me that those were her exact words. My advice to her was to talk to her in their next class. Let her know that everything would be fine and if she needed additional help, the counselors are there for that and to be a listening ear if she needed one. They have a very inclusive school and communication is excellent. They can email and make appointments to see their teachers and their counselors without the need of parents. Their school is teaching them how to be independent and prepping them for what they will face in college. We are cc’d on most communications as parents, but they work cohesively with the teachers and staff.
What are some of the possible warning signs that a teen may be contemplating suicide? Some you may notice and some you may not because you will not be around 24 hours a day. However, if you notice some of the following behaviors; step in and try to help.
- Changes in sleeping and eating habits.
- Loss of interest in normal activities (going out with friends, abandoning social media, any normal daily activities.
- Withdrawal from friends and family.
- Acting out and running away.
- Alcohol and drug use.
- Neglecting their appearance.
- Unnecessary risk taking.
- Unhealthy obsession with death or dying.
- Physical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches and extreme fatigue.
- Loss of interest in school and work.
- Feeling bored.
- Hard time focusing.
- Feeling like they want to die.
Now one of these behaviors by themselves may not necessarily mean that a person is suicidal, but a combination of many will definitely throw up red flags. As a parent, it is important to pay attention to your children, their behaviors and how their moods swing. Of course a teen will have your normal mood swings, but anything extreme should be looked at thoroughly. Knowing the warning signs, openly communicating with your teen and their friends gives you the chance to help before things become a life or death situation. How can I prevent my teen from attempting suicide?
- Keep medicines and guns away from children and teens.
- Get them help for mental and substance abuse problems. There is no harm in helping your child. Some parents are afraid of the stigma that follows inpatient and outpatient care for mental and substance abuse. My advice to you is, get over it. It’s not about you but about your child!
- Be a supportive parent. Listen and try not to be judgemental and critical…stay connected.
- Do your homework and get informed about teen suicide. There are mental health facilities in just about every city nationwide that have support groups. If not, browse the internet and even visit your local library for literature.
- Know the signs of depression: sadness, loneliness, declining school performance, changes in sleep pattern, weight and appetite changes, nervousness, agitation or being grouchy.
If you notice a change in your child’s behavior, do not wait to see if things will improve because things can change in an instant. A parent is the most important person in their child’s life and should be constant as well. Your presence may make the difference in whether they get help for whatever issues they may be experiencing. If your child expresses their desire to end their lives, take it seriously and get them help.
If you are someone you know is suicidal, call 911 if there is an immediate threat, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or the CrisisText Line (text. “HOME” to 741741).