Teenagers and Suicide: What to Look for
Jane (fictional) was one of the lucky ones. A fifteen year old adolescent, she had a huge argument with her parents over her boy friend of whom they disapproved. She stormed out of the house, something that she had done many times before in her relationship with her parents. That night, she met her boyfriend and they both went to the home of one of their friends where there was a group of other teenagers who were drinking. Angry at her parents and wanting to try to hurt them, Jane drank heavily that night. After her boy friend brought her home, Jane locked herself in her room and swallowed the pills she had saved and hidden in her bedroom. The following day her mother came to her room several times but got no acknowledgment when she knocked on her door. Finally, the mother became concerned, entered the bedroom and found her daughter unconscious. She was rushed to the emergency room where she was treated and moved to inpatient psychiatry where she was treated for depression and suicide. After several months of treatment and stabilization on medication she was discharged home and she and her family referred to me for therapy. Yes, Jane was one of the lucky ones: she survived her suicide attempt.
Just when they are beginning their lives many teenagers are at a high risk of attempting and committing suicide. Parents often report, once it is too late, that they were unaware of anything wrong with their child. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the third leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24 years old is suicide. During 2003 244 lives were lost to suicide among children ages 10 to 14. According to the Youth Risk Surveillance Survey of 2005 one in six teenagers reported that they had thought about suicide during the previous year.
The teenage years are known to be very difficult for many young people. Teenagers tend to be impulsive and emotional, giving in to their immediate reactions instead of thinking things through. Recent research has documented the fact the brains of teenagers have not caught up with their physical and hormonal growth so that they naturally tend to be more emotional until the cortex if fully developed.
In addition to issues of neurological growth adolescents who have been abused or neglected during childhood are more prone to depression than those who have not had those experiences. Also, extremely critical and authoritarian parents tend to have children who feel less secure and are more anxious. This is also accompanied by feelings of depression linked to low self esteem caused by the tendency of the parents to be authoritarian.
Of particular importance in teenage depression and suicide are a family history of mental illness and the question of whether or not the teen is using illicit drugs and alcohol. Drug and alcohol abuse combined with teenage impulsiveness is a lethal combination. Under the influence of these substances teens are more likely to behave in ways that are dangerous and harmful to them selves.
What are the Symptoms that a Teenager could be Suicidal?
1. Talking about wanting to die, or talking about wanting to hurt or kill one' self.
2. Looking for ways to kill themselves by seeking firearms, collecting from the medicine cabinet or elsewhere pills, or other means.
3. Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide, expressing hopelessness.
4. Exhibiting rage or uncontrolled anger, particularly at home.
5. Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities.
6. Using alcohol and illicit drugs.
7. Withdrawing from friends, family, and school and self isolating.
8. Complaining about being unable to sleep, or sleeping all the time.
9. Experiencing and exhibiting dramatic mood changes. (Suddenly going from being depressed to happy).
10. Seeing no reason for living or having no sense of purpose in life.
11. Changes in appearance from being neat and well groomed to looking unkempt, disheveled and sloppy.
12. Giving away prized possessions to friends or siblings.
Who Should Be Aware and what should be Done:
In order to prevent vulnerable teens from attempting suicide it is important that everyone in the community be aware and take responsibility. That means that teachers, religious leaders, guidance counselors, school administrators, friends, parents and extended family members who become aware that something is wrong take quick action.
There are too many people who hold the incorrect belief that adolescents are simply emotional and dramatic and therefore their threats of suicide are meaningless. In actuality, people of any age who express suicidal ideation are to be taken seriously. Furthermore, daring anyone who talks about suicide to just go ahead and do it is a very foolish approach. Some people do this because of myth that people who threaten suicide do not really mean it and are just looking for attention. The problem with daring someone who is depressed and feeling hopeless is that they are in real danger of taking the challenge very seriously.
There are those people who mistakenly believe that unsuccessful suicide attempts should not be taken seriously because they are mere calls for help. Under all of these circumstances one has to wonder what a teenager must do in order to prove that they are very serious about wanting to die. It is true that some attempts are more lethal or deadly than others and hospital personnel are aware of this in treating those who have made attempts. However, all attempts are dangerous and to be taken seriously because the margin of error in making the attempt is very small. Anyone who fortunately survived an attempt was lucky because they may have taken one pill too few, not aimed the gun accurately or any number of accidental errors that saved their lives. The lesson from all of this is that if not taken seriously, the suicidal person can be very successful the next time.
Anyone who suspects a teenager or anyone else is considering suicide can and should talk to the individual about this. If you are a friend then talk to someone immediately: a teacher, guidance counselor, etc. Supportive families should spot the symptoms of depression and provide mental health counseling before tragedy occurs. If someone is convinced that the adolescent is in danger they can and should call 911 and have them brought to and evaluated by the hospital. If the teenager has attempted suicide 911 should be called immediately. Incredibly, I have known cases where family or friends failed to do this incorrectly believing they could handle the problem themselves or fearing the teen would be angry at them if they reported the attempt.
Any teenager or anyone who is having suicidal thoughts can call this hotline 24 hours per day: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
There is also a website: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org