By Danny Huerta, PSYD, MSW, LCSW, LSSW
Suicide is a problem in the youth and young adult population. There is hope for healing when parents and others are intentional about providing help.
What is Suicide?
The act of intentionally causing one’s own death, known as suicide, is a problem that is the second leading cause of death among 10–34-year-olds. It is a tragic event that not only takes the precious life of one individual but also leaves his or her friends, family members and community members grief stricken, confused, and devastated. Thankfully, there is hope for healing when parents and others take intentional steps to help.
Even though it can feel like it, suicide isn’t something that just happens out of the blue. Many factors contribute to a person actually deciding to end a life. During adolescence, however, experts observe a higher level of suicidal thoughts.
Research indicates that 90 percent of teens who attempt suicide have some type of mental health issue. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are all correlated with suicidal thoughts and actions. A number of other issues may make youth and young adults more prone to suicidal thoughts. Bullying, trauma, emptiness, loneliness, rejection by peers or abuse are all issues that may contribute to self-harm.
Suicide is a problem that can be contagious. If a teen hears about a suicide, he may see it as a solution to his own problems. Family members, friends or celebrities who attempt suicide can create feelings of permission in someone contemplating suicide. There is hope for healing when open communication is established, and media exposure is kept to a minimum.
Entertainment and social media provide messages or perceptions about suicide that can be positive but, in many cases, are very destructive. These mediums impact emotions, leaving children vulnerable to their influences. Teens are highly influenced by their emotions, causing them to react to tough situations before their brains can catch up and think clearly.
No single issue will cause your child to take his or her life, but there are several influences that can contribute to suicide risk. Mental health conditions and stressful life events—such as abuse or serious illness—are possible risk factors.
Having one of these risk factors doesn’t mean your child is thinking about killing himself. It does mean you should be looking for various warning signs. Some of those include anxiety, hopelessness, emptiness, withdrawal, anger and significant mood or behaviour changes. Suicide is a problem that requires proactivity. Even if you don’t see red flags, there are preventative measures you can take to reduce your child’s risk.
Be the Cool House
Make your home the place where your teen and his friends hang out. That might mean you buy pizza and host movie nights. You’ll have extra messes and costs—but it’ll allow you to keep a pulse on your teen’s life. Additionally, get to know the families your children choose to hang out with.
Establish a clear written agreement that addresses openness and transparency. In that document, state expectations of how technology, social media and text messaging will be used in your home. Actively monitor screen time so you can catch potentially troubling activities.
Communication and Connection
Have a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly date or one-on-one time with your child. Ask questions, like: What is it like to be a __-year-old in our house? Can you tell me what is going well? Is there anything that is not going well?
- Make sure you’re listening and avoid lecturing. Let them know you love them—that they’re good enough—as they continue to grow. Tell them that they can overcome difficult experiences and emotions that are a part of life. There is hope for healing when parents and their children engage in loving, honest communication.
Addressing Other Issues
If your teen struggles with depression, anxiety, perfectionist tendencies or a mental illness, diligently deal with the issues. Research supports that seeing a counsellor makes a significant difference in helping children cope and manage a mental illness. Exercise, a good diet, rest, and positive support are all contributors to a healthy mind.
Address learning disabilities, seeking professional help if necessary. These can play into how your child sees his worth and how others treat him. Help your child find her strengths.
Responding to Warning Signs
If you see warning signs of suicide in your child, talk to him. Ask him what he is thinking and feeling and use the word suicide. Some parents fear that by using that word they will plant a seed. That’s not true. Instead, your child will get a greater sense that you care and want to protect him. A good rule of thumb is: If your teen is talking about suicide with awareness and respect, then he is safer than those who aren’t talking about it. Suicide is a problem that leads to isolation so talking can break through it.
Helping Your Child
What should you do if your child says he has been thinking about suicide? The acrostic S-L-A-P can help you evaluate the level of danger:
S = Specific plan. Is your teen considering a specific course of action for taking his own life? The more specifically someone talks about the suicide and the more details they give, the greater the risk.
L = Lethality of the plan. Is this specific plan truly deadly? If so, he’s now running a 50 percent risk.
A = Availability of plan. Can the plan be enacted? Does he have access to the means and/or materials needed to carry out his intentions? If so, he is in considerable danger: Remove the means and take immediate action.
P = Proximity of help. Are there people close enough to keep him from following through with his plan? He probably won’t try anything while friends, family, or others whom he respects are around. If you can’t put a teen under family supervision, call 911 or take him directly to a local emergency room.
If your child’s risk level is low enough that suicide does not seem imminent, you still need to address the issues. You may consider having your teen evaluated by a licensed mental health professional. If medications are suggested, try to consult with a psychiatrist. Problems like clinical depression are the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Unless your child’s brain chemistry is rebalanced, his depression may not improve. Psychiatrists have a better understanding of the benefits and risks of various medications and are best able to monitor and adjust them as needed. But remember, medication by itself is not enough support for children struggling with a mental illness. There is hope for healing in therapy with qualified, licensed mental health professionals.
If your child has a friend who talks about taking her own life, here are some things she can do to be of help:
- Tell someone. Saving a friend’s life is more important than keeping secrets.
- Tell her friend that she needs to talk with a parent or other trustworthy, caring adult. If possible, she should go with her and not leave until she’s sure her friend is in good hands.
- Connect her friend with Focus on the Family Malaysia at 03-3310 0792.
Realise that your teen may have a variety of emotions surrounding her friend’s problems. She may be worried or wondering if her friend’s problems are somehow her fault. Or, she might even feel that it is somehow up to her to save her friend’s life. Give your teen a safe place to unload her feelings. Remind her that she cannot control her friend’s thoughts or actions. Tell her that there is hope for healing and that reaching out was an important first step. Your teen needs to direct her friend to adult helpers and professionals. She needs to be free from unfounded responsibility and guilt. She can only do her best to point her friend in the right direction.
Suicide is a Problem That Deserves Attention
Talk about it. Start the conversation with these questions.
Be a noticer
- Has anyone told you they want to kill themselves? Have you ever had such thoughts?
- Why do you think people even consider suicide?
Be a builder
- What do you think has been lost in a person’s life if they want to skip to “game over”? How can you help someone feel a sense of worth?
- Can you think of ways you can reach out to children who seem isolated?
- How do you know you are cared about in our home? When do you feel loved in our home?
Be a connector
- Who do you feel safe sharing your experiences and feelings with? Why do you feel they are the best to understand?
- What can you do if a friend starts talking about suicide? Do you trust your teachers, school counsellor or principal to handle this well?
© 2019 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.
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