Q.What is your message to teens who are feeling sad, who feel alone and are struggling, and who have considered taking their life? I know someone who committed suicide, and it really upset me. Why?
Mary Jo’s response: Your question raises a very important issue. I’m pleased you asked me to address it. Suicide is a huge topic, and I’ll do my best to cover it. My direct response to your question is: Each person is a person of worth. If teens feel sad, alone, are struggling or are considering suicide, I want them to know their worth. Each young person offers a unique contribution to life. Each teen is meant to be here. I honor the individuality of a young person. Depression and suicidal thoughts are to be taken seriously. I would connect and then seek help.
Are you feeling sad or alone? Let’s meet right away if you are. When young people express the feelings you discuss, I meet with them and their families to do an assessment and refer immediately to a mental health professional who can follow through with counseling. My schedule is tight; the commitment necessary to follow a troubled teen long-term isn’t feasible, and I don’t take such a commitment lightly. I will continue to meet with a teen, but not in place of a therapeutic relationship. If a young person fractured a limb, I’d provide support, but I would still refer to an orthopedic specialist.
Many teens feel alone or sad. Adolescence can be a time of pressure, of roller-coaster emotions, and of sorting out relationships with family and friends. Considering suicide is different from typical adolescent mood swings. The Centers for Disease Control lists suicide as the third leading cause of death among young people between 10 and 19, following unintentional injuries and homicide.
I believe prevention is the best way to address youth suicide. Some young people are at higher risk for suicide than others. These situations are associated with increased suicide risk:
• History of previous suicide attempts
• Family history of suicide
• History of depression or other mental illness
• Alcohol or drug abuse
• Stressful life event or loss
• Easy access to lethal methods (like firearms)
• Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others
• Family stress/dysfunction
• Feelings of isolation
Let’s look at isolation. One-fourth of all students from elementary age through high school experience bullying or harassment at school because of their race, ethnicity, gender or gender identity, disability, religion or sexual orientation. Young people who feel different and are not included are at higher risk. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) students or young people questioning their sexuality are at higher risk for suicide than their heterosexual peers.
I believe bullying-prevention programs help schools recognize bullying behavior and prevent it. I’m a certified Olweus Bullying Prevention Program trainer and can help schools institute this district-wide program. Many researchers believe the presence of a Gay-Straight Alliance in a school decreases bullying for all youth.
Here are some warning signs of possible suicide:
• Suicidal threats (direct or indirect statements, for example, “It would be better if I was dead.”)
• Suicide notes or plans
• Prior suicidal behavior
• Making final arrangements (for example, giving away prized possessions, discussing funeral plans)
• Preoccupation with death
• Changes in behavior, appearance or expressed feelings
If you or any other teen is considering suicide, please tell someone. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Locally the Washington County Crisis Line (1-877-225-3567) provides 24-hour emergency mental health service. If a friend shows signs of suicide, get help from an adult immediately, even if your friend asks you to stay silent. Your friend may be angry at first, but in the long run you will help save a life. Do not try to handle something this serious alone. I am incredibly proud of our Peer Educators and Peer Leaders, but I stress their roles during trainings and at meetings. I don’t believe young people should be peer counselors; taking on the role of a mental health professional is not safe. Counselors have extensive training and know how to provide a therapeutic response to suicidal thoughts.
Let’s be practical. What should you do if a friend appears at risk for suicide?
• Try to stay calm.
• Ask directly if your friend is thinking about suicide.
• Get help from an adult – a parent, grandparent, teacher, school counselor, coach, pastor or other trusted adult.
• Do not judge.
• Reassure. There is help, and this feeling will not last forever.
Adults interested in suicide prevention can find many resources online. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a free download of “Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for High School” at http://store.samhsa.gov/product/SMA12-4669.
Suicide often causes a unique type of grief. Loved ones may feel lost, confused, and even betrayed. The question “Why?” echoes. Family and friends may blame themselves and wonder how the suicide could have been prevented. If you know someone who committed suicide, it’s important to seek support for yourself. Prevention is not always possible, and it’s not your fault. Thanks for caring.