A few hours after I saw my children after school, I would receive a call that would sadden any parent. The friend of my teenagers had hung himself that morning. At the tender age of 16, life had become such a heavy burden that this bright young man chose such a harsh, permanent option. It broke my heart and it also scared me. He seemed to be such a happy kid. Everyone loved him. But sources say the divorce of his parents a year before had been really hard for him…this seems to be the only reason anyone can come up with for his actions. So being a single mother who has went though a very nasty divorce that has caused quite a bit of trouble for my own teens, I was very unsettled.
I dove into looking for information on teen suicide and the best way to discuss it with my children and I was shocked to learn that suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Death by suicide surpasses accidents and homicides in this age group. And if your child has access to a firearm their risk of suicide drastically increases. 60% of suicides in the United States are carried out with a gun. All the more reason to keep guns locked up and out of sight as well as securing ammunition in a separate location that is out of reach of children and teens.
Suicide attempts and statistics also vary between boys and girls. While girls tend to think about and even attempt to commit suicide twice as often as boys, boys die by suicide four times more than girls. I found this shocking but the reasoning makes sense. Boys chose much more lethal methods when attempting suicide. Girls tend to try overdosing or cutting themselves. But boys chose things with little room for error or failure such as firearms, hanging, jumping from buildings or bridges.
While most of us can certainly remember how frustrating, confusing and emotional those teen years can be, we still cannot fathom our children feeling such despair that they would choose such a desperate act. So what are some things that we can watch for? What are the warning signs?
Certainly if your child has a psychological disorder then you and their therapist should be keeping a close watch for any other signals. Studies have found that 95% of people who die at their own hands are suffering from a psychological disorder at the time of their death. Family history of depression is also reason for concern as depressive illnesses have a genetic component.
Never ignore a child’s threats of suicide, even if you think it is jut a cry for attention. Attention may be exactly what they are needing and could be what saves their life. Not having a support network, feeling isolated and lonely, poor relationships with their peers and parents, and being physically and sexually abused increases suicide risks. Is your child being bullied? Get involved. Talk to your child, seek the help of a therapist to bridge the gaps. Make sure they know healthy coping skills and encourage them often to utilize them.
Some physical and emotional things to look for include frequent irritability and agitation. Feelings of distress, hopelessness and worthlessness. Talking about suicide and even death in general or “going away” should be taken very seriously. Pulling away from friends and family, giving up well loved hobbies and activities. Changes in eating, sleeping habits, and self-destructive type behaviors like drug and/or alcohol abuse, wreckless acts like driving out of control and even suddenly making poor grades are all signs that something is wrong and a kid needs help.
If your child begins showing signs of depression or withdrawing, keep a close watch on them. Talk to them. Listen to them. Take their concerns seriously. A fight with a friend or break-up with a boy they “dated” for only a few weeks may seem very trivial to you. But a teenager who is experiencing all this for the first time can feel overwhelmed, consumed, and like there’s no end in sight. Acknowledge their feelings. Avoid minimizing or trivializing what they are experiencing as this can worsen their feelings of hopelessness and “no one understands.”
Every parent would like to think that their child can talk to them about anything but the reality is, that is just not always the case. It’s always a good idea to see to that your child has another person that they feel comfortable talking to. Whether it be the other parent, relative, friend of the family, coach, you name it. This goes hand-in-hand with making sure your child has a support network. It just makes sense that the more support a child has and people to share their lives and feelings with, the healthier they’ll be mentally.
Something that hit home for me was learning that ongoing conflicts between you and your child can trigger a child who is already feeling misunderstood, alone, unappreciated or suicidal. Having two teenagers myself, I have experienced what a lot of people have told me is typical growing pains that parents and teens go through together. While this is somewhat typical and there will be struggles at times with your child as they struggle to find their identity, it is extremely important to make sure family problems are discussed and resolved in healthy, constructive manners. This may involve the help of a professional. Either way, don’t just chalk it up as normal teen behavior to hate your parents. Deal with it, get help with it.
So what do you do when someone your child knows commits suicide? This can be a scary thing for a parent. You may worry that talking about it or bringing attention to it may put the idea into your child’s head. But those ideas may already be there and bringing it out in the open can help you to identify your child being at risk. It opens up the lines of communication, enabling you to discuss the issues at hand and impress on your child that problems are temporary, suicide is permanent, and there is help.
Discuss your child’s feelings surrounding their friend or classmates suicide. Reassure them that their feelings are very normal. It is very normal for people to feel guilt, to feel that they should have seen the signs, been a better friend, done something. It’s also common for people to feel angry that their loved one would be so selfish and inflict such pain and sadness on everyone who loved and cared for them. There is no right or wrong way to feel. But there are healthy and unhealthy way of dealing with those feelings. Make sure you are available to guide your child through healthy means of expressing and dealing with their feelings and their grief. And if you can’t, seek out someone who can. You child’s life may depend on it.