Suicide. What comes to mind when you hear this word? Do you panic and feel overwhelmed and anxious? Does your mind begin to search for answers and question why anyone would ever consider such a thing? If so, you are not alone. You are with the tens of thousands of people who feel the same way. Suicide is a public health concern. Four out of 5 teens are said to give clear warning signs that they are considering suicide. So then what is the problem with open communication and prevention? For many parents, suicide is a taboo topic that should never be thought about or even discussed. For teens, this makes talking to their parents difficult because they fear their parents will either get angry with them, oust them for having suicidal thoughts, or have them admitted to a hospital and treated. As a therapist who works with various children and teens suffering with suicidal thoughts, I encourage parents to overcome their own fears of the topic and meet with me to learn why I support parents normalizing suicidal thoughts with their teens. This article will discuss why normalization of suicidal ideations can be helpful and 5 things parents should consider about their suicidal teen.
Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for individuals aged 15-24, according to the American Psychological Association. It’s a sad fact but many adolescents avoid speaking to their families about their suicidal thoughts for fear of being hospitalized against their will (302 procedure), needlessly alarming their families and friends (especially if the suicidal thoughts are fleeting and short-term), or having to attend therapy sessions each week. It’s another sad fact that many teens avoid discussing their emotions because, in their words “emotions are stupid,” and because teens just don’t want to lose the respect and privileges they receive for doing what they are supposed to do (go to school, do chores, stay out of trouble, etc.), feeling the way we think they should feel (happy and content), and discussing the topics that are socially acceptable (boys, social media, school, family, etc). When kids deviate from this socially acceptable view of teenagers, adults become alarmed and immediately seek answers. This is what any loving parent would do. However, this “knee jerk” reaction from adults is what sometimes keeps teens from wanting to open up about their suicidal thoughts. This is also why most teens would rather talk to their friends or siblings about their thoughts and not adults. So if this is the case, how can we help teenagers feel more comfortable in discussing their existential/spiritual questions and suicidal thoughts with us? I often encourage parents and guardians to do the following:
- Normalize the experience of suicidal thoughts with wisdom: Normalizing suicidal thoughts might make you a bit uncomfortable for fear of putting suicidal thoughts into your teens head, giving them ideas to kill themselves, or encouraging suicide in some way. But let me assure you that most teens have already thought or spoken with their friends about suicide. It is not a taboo topic for most teens today. Asking your teen to discuss their thoughts with you is the only way you will be able to help them. But first you must let your teen know that suicidal thoughts are quite normal and that many well known celebrities, historians, philosophers, psychiatrists, and everyday citizens have discussed or had questions about suicide. The less taboo we make the subject as adults, the more likely kids are able to talk to us about their hidden thoughts on the subject. Do your research and learn more about how prevalent suicidal thoughts are.
- Consider that suicidal teens may need to be “pampered” in some ways: Teens who are suicidal often struggle with anxiety and depression including a host of social issues such as bullying, ostracism, or discrimination. Other kids who have considered or thought about suicide also often struggle with mental health or behavioral health conditions that are either untreated or poorly treated. Sometimes the only way a teen can see getting “out” of painful situations is to consider ending it all. Kids who consider suicide are typically “sensitive” kids who may need a lot of nurturing, compassion, understanding, and therapy. However, I must also mention that there are some teens who use suicide as a “scare-tactic” or manipulation tool. We are not talking about these kids. We are talking about the chronically depressed kids who want a way out of their “daily prison.” You will also want to consider the emotional and psychological toll that environmental factors (low income, single parent households, divorce, poor school performance, poverty, lack of access to therapy services, etc.) can have on suicidal teens. A teenager who is growing up in poverty, is on probation, and is failing school is likely to consider suicide as a viable option. These kind of kids need a lot of attention and nurturing.
- Not all suicidal teens are suicidal because they are depressed or experiencing difficulty: I also want to make it clear that depression or life stressors are not a prerequisite for suicidal thoughts. In other words, you don’t have to be depressed or struggle with stress to be suicidal. You also do not have to have a negative life or upbringing to feel suicidal. In fact, many kids who have two-parent households, are going to great schools, are getting good grades, and have a fairly stable household could end up having suicidal thoughts. Many kids struggle to explain why they feel suicidal when they have everything they need.
- Suicidal thoughts do not make kids weak or vulnerable: In my work with children and adolescents in clinical settings, I find that many older parents or guardians tend to believe in the social idea that suicidal thoughts automatically mean that a person is “weak,” “exaggerating things,” or “seeking attention.” This is not to say that all older individuals believe this but many do. Culture also plays a role in beliefs about suicide. The African American culture, for example, often views suicide as taboo and unacceptable. There is a great deal of stigma attached to suicide in this community. Suicide, according to one study, showed that suicide is more common among Caucasians than African Americans and other ethnic cultures. I encourage parents to be sensitive to a teen’s view of suicide and be nurturing to them by being aware of your own biases about suicide.
- Suicidal thoughts don’t just go away: It’s important that parents understand that suicidal thoughts don’t just come and go. They are often difficult to tract but most teens will admit that the thoughts start out being infrequent and seem to become more frequent with stress overtime. A teen who has repeat admissions to hospitals are often more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts than other kids. Kids who have poor coping skills (substance abuse, lashing out, running away, etc) or no coping skills (deep breathing, distraction techniques, etc) will also struggle with suicidal thoughts for long periods of times. One of my previous teen clients once said “I wish my mother and father would not tell me to ‘get over’ these thoughts because I simply cannot. They have been with me my entire life.”
Suicide is a difficult topic. It is also a difficult and painful reality for many parents and families who have lost a loved one to suicide. As a therapist, I must admit that I too struggle with the reality that so many of our youngsters turn to death for solace and peace of mind. Lets open the discussion for kids to feel safe enough to talk to us. Lets help them understand that their thoughts are not abnormal but that suicide is not the best course to take. We need to help kids see that there is meaning to life, although difficult to see at times, that can be fulfilling to their heart and soul. For many teens, the fact that someone cares, understands, and refuses to condemn them makes a world of difference.
To watch a very helpful video on this topic titled: “Why we choose suicide,” visit my website anchoredinknowledge.com.
In the meantime, enjoy this short clip on “The Butterfly Project,” a project developed by a teenager who engaged in cutting behaviors. The video is designed for teens who consider suicide and have self-esteem challenges as well.
The Butterfly Project
Photo by Jared Keener
APA. (n.d.). Teen suicide is preventable. What the research shows. Retrieved October 6, 2015 from, http://www.apa.org/research/action/suicide.aspx.