In this episode, Dr. John addresses the rise in teen suicide and shares an important message to help parents understand the current situation and what to do to help their teens.
Did you Know?
Dennis Thompson of Health Day Reporter wrote the following:
Suicide rates among teens and young adults have reached their highest point in nearly two decades, a new study reports.
Suicides among teens have especially spiked, with an annual percentage change of 10% between 2014 and 2017 for 15- to 19-year-olds, researchers said.
“It really is an unprecedented surge,” said lead author Oren Miron, a research associate at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “You can go back decades and you won’t find such a sharp increase.”
Suicide rates for 15- to 19-year-olds and those between 20 and 24 are at their highest level since 2000, Miron said.
The surge is particularly strong among teen boys, up 14% a year between 2015 and 2017. Suicide rates for teenage girls, meanwhile, rose 8% annually between 2000 and 2017.
“Parents and teachers need to be aware that the rates have reached their highest recorded level, and they need to be on the lookout for both boys and girls,” Miron said.
He said the opioid epidemic might be fueling part of the rise, and social media is another likely contributor.
“It’s much easier to bully,” Miron said. “The apps are getting smarter and smarter at providing anonymity and hiding activity from grown-ups.”
What are the warning signs of teen suicide?
According to the Mayo Clinic, the warning signs of teen suicide include:
- Talking or writing about suicide.
- Withdrawing from social contact.
- Experiencing sudden mood swings.
- Using alcohol or drugs more frequently.
- Expressing a sense of hopelessness.
- Taking part in risky or self-destructive behavior.
- Changing eating or sleeping patterns.
- Giving away belongings for no apparent reason.
What if you are concerned your child is thinking about suicide?
- If your child is talking about any level of distress, do not hesitate to ask them whether they’re feeling changes in their mood or level of stress, or having suicidal thoughts. Asking your child directly about suicide will not increase their risk or plant the idea. It will create an opportunity to offer support and let them know you care enough to have the conversation.
- You can say, “It sounds like you’ve been dealing with a lot lately. Does it ever get so tough that you think about ending your life?”
- Talk with your child about how to seek help. If you fear they may be at risk, get professional help right away.
- Let them know you’ll be there for them no matter what, that your love is unconditional, and that you’ll help them get the help they need to get through this challenging time.
What are some of the key protective factors?
- Good problem-solving abilities. Kids who are able to see a problem and figure out effective ways to manage it, to resolve conflicts in non-violent ways, are at lower risk.
- Strong connections. The stronger the connections kids have to their families, to their friends, and to people in the community, the less likely they are to harm themselves. Partly, that’s because they feel loved and supported, and partly because they have people to turn to when they’re struggling and feel really challenged.
- Restricted access to highly lethal means of suicide.
- Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and that support self-preservation.
- Relatively easy access to appropriate clinical intervention, whether that be psychotherapy, individual, group, family therapy, or medication if indicated.
- Effective care for mental, physical, and substance use disorders. Good medical and mental health care involves ongoing relationships, making kids feel connected to professionals who take care of them and are available to them.
What can parents do if their teen fits the profile for being at risk for suicide?
According to findings published in the journal Pediatrics:
In interviews with more than 5,000 Philadelphia-area kids ages 11 to 17 and their parents, researchers found that among the teens who reported that they had thoughts about taking their own life, 50 percent of their moms and dads said they had no idea. Three-quarters said they had no idea their children had recurrent thoughts about death.
“Previous research has also found poor agreement not just in suicidal thoughts but in things like depressive symptoms and perceptions of family functioning,” said study author Jason Jones, a research scientist at the PolicyLab of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “There’s a lot of evidence that parents are not aware.”
Jones and his team were surprised to find similar disagreement in the other direction, between children’s downplayed reports of their thoughts versus what their parents saw as troubling indicators. A significant number of teenagers denied they had thought about suicide or death, even though their parents told the researchers they had.
“But I think for something as straightforward as this,” he continued. “I mean, ‘Have you ever thought of killing yourself?’ is a pretty direct question. To see the level of disagreement we’re seeing, it’s alarming.”
Warning signs of suicide to be alert to include changes in personality or behavior that might not be obviously related to suicide. When a teenager becomes sad, more withdrawn, more irritable, anxious, tired, or apathetic—things that used to be fun aren’t fun anymore—you should be concerned. Changes in sleep patterns or eating habits can also be red flags.
Acting erratically, or recklessly is also a warning sign. If a teen starts making really poor judgments, or he starts doing things that are harmful to himself or other people, like bullying or fighting, it can be a sign that he is spinning out of control.
And, finally, if a child is talking about dying, you should always pay attention. “I wish I was dead.” “I just want to disappear.” “Maybe I should jump off that building.” “Maybe I should shoot myself.” “You’d all be better off if I wasn’t around.” When you hear this kind of talk, it’s important to take it seriously—even if you can’t imagine your child meaning it seriously.
10 Things Parents Can Do to Help Prevent Suicide
As children grow into teenagers, it becomes more challenging for parents to know what they are thinking and feeling. When do the normal ups and downs of adolescence become something to worry about?
It’s important to learn about the factors that can put a teen at risk for suicide. Spend some time thinking about these ten ways you can help prevent a tragedy from occurring. The more you know, the better you’ll be prepared for understanding what can put your child at risk.
1. Don’t let your teen’s depression or anxiety snowball.
Maybe your child is merely having a bad day, but maybe it’s something more if this mood has been going on for a couple of weeks.
- Fact: 9 in 10 teens who take their own lives met criteria for a diagnosis of psychiatric or mental health condition or disorder—more than half of them with a mood disorder such as depression or anxiety.
- Depressed people often retreat into themselves, when secretly they’re crying out to be rescued. Many times, they’re too embarrassed to reveal their unhappiness to others, including Mom and Dad. Boys in particular may try to hide their emotions, in the misguided belief that displaying the feeling is a fifty-foot-high neon sign of weakness.
- Let’s not wait for children or youth to come to us with their problems or concerns. Knock on the door, park yourself on the bed, and say, “You seem sad. Would you like to talk about it? Maybe I can help.”
2. Listen—even when your teen is not talking.
Not all, but most kids who are thinking about suicide (this is called suicidal ideation) tip off their troubled state of mind through troubled behaviors and actions. Studies have found that one trait common to families affected by a son’s or daughter’s suicide is poor communication between parents and child. However, there are usually three or more issues or factors going on all at once in a child’s life at the time when he or she is thinking about taking his or her life.
These include but are not limited to:
- 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.
3. 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 previous ones 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.”
4. Seek professional help right away.
If your teenager’s behavior has you concerned, don’t wait to reach out for help. Contact a local mental health provider who works with teens 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.
5. 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.
6. Encourage your teen not to 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.
7. Recommend exercise.
Physical activity as simple as walking or as vigorous as pumping iron can put the brakes on mild to moderate depression. There are several theories why:
- Working out causes a gland in the brain to release endorphins, a substance believed to improve mood and ease pain. Endorphins also lower the amount of cortisol in the circulation. Cortisol, a hormone, has been linked to depression.
- Exercise distracts people from their problems and makes them feel better about themselves.
- Experts recommend working out for thirty to forty minutes a day, two to five times per week.
- Any form of exercise will do; what matters most is that children and youth enjoy the activity and continue to do it on a regular basis.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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. Remember, if you suspect suicidal ideation:
- Discuss it openly and frankly
- Show interest and support
- Get professional help
Get Help for a Suicidal Person
Whenever you think that someone you know is in danger of suicide, get help. Suggest that he or she call a suicide prevention center, crisis intervention center or whatever similar organization serves your area. Or suggest that they talk with a sympathetic teacher, counselor, clergyman, doctor or other adult you respect. If your friend refuses, take it upon yourself to talk with one of these people for advice on handling the situation.
In some cases, you may find yourself in the position of having to get direct help for someone who is suicidal and refuses to go for counseling. If so, do it. Don’t be afraid of appearing disloyal. Many people who are suicidal have given up hope. They no longer believe they can be helped. They feel it is useless. The truth is, they can be helped. With time, most suicidal people can be restored to full and happy living. But when they are feeling hopeless, their judgment is impaired. They can’t see a reason to go on living. In that case, it is up to you to use your judgment to see that they get the help they need. What at the time may appear to be an act of disloyalty or the breaking of a confidence could turn out to be the favor of a life-time. Your courage and willingness to act could save a life.
A message for parents dealing with grief after a child’s suicide
How can we possibly get past the guilt, shame, confusion, fear, and pain that have overtaken us in the wake of our teenage son’s suicide? Not only are we blaming ourselves and wondering where we went wrong. We’re also dealing with the toxic effect this is having on our entire family. Can you help us?
The first thing you need to know is that this is not your fault. Parents in your position tend to blame themselves. If they don’t blame themselves, they may blame one another and end up destroying their marriage. So, don’t add to the severity of your grief by assuming responsibility for things beyond your control.
Next, we want to assure you that our hearts go out to you and your entire family in the midst of this profoundly painful and distressing situation. We can imagine that you are experiencing a wide range of conflicting emotions at this point in time. In particular, it must be overwhelming for you as parents to try and understand why the precious child you brought into the world somehow felt compelled to put an end to his life. If it hasn’t happened yet, you can shortly expect to be overwhelmed by a host of why God questions. You’ll ask yourselves where you went wrong and how you could possibly have missed the signs that this tragedy was approaching. You’ll wrestle with feelings of shame, guilt and despair. Please know that we care about you and will do what we can to help.
Above all, we want to encourage you to fight any tendency you may have to withdraw into yourselves and “clam up” about the terrible thing that has happened to your family. It’s vital to talk about your feelings and allow yourselves to grieve openly.
With that in mind, we want to urge you in the strongest possible terms to seek the help of others who have walked this path before you. There are several reputable organizations and ministries that offer support groups for parents and family members of suicide victims. It would be worth your while to contact some of the following groups for further information:
- SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) https://save.org/
- The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry https://www.aacap.org/
- The American Association of Suicidology https://suicidology.org/
- The Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program https://yellowribbon.org/
You should also engage the services of a professional counselor as you work your way through the aftermath of this experience, and we highly recommend that you include the entire family in the counseling process. Focus on the Family’s Counseling department can provide you with a list of qualified Christian therapists in your area who specialize in dealing with problems of this nature. Their number is 855-771-4357. Call them for a free consultation.