It was the headline on the national news last week. A city with a population less than 100,000, and the last place in the world where you would expect it to happen, has had a rash of 10 teenage suicides in the last month. Sadly, in these times, this could be “Anytown” in any country.
What Do We Know About Youth Suicide?
Childhood and adolescence are often portrayed as carefree, easy and fun-filled times in life. However, the thousands of child and youth suicides each year demonstrate that this is not always the case. What are the statistics regarding adolescent suicide?
Surprisingly, this is not an easy question to answer. Part of the difficulty with statistics, which I discovered as I researched this article, is that they are often outdated and can be “skewed” by other factors, such as the fact that not all suicides are recorded as such, and are sometimes reported as “accidental deaths.”
These facts I can share with confidence, however:
- The latest estimates are that somewhere around one million people in the world complete suicide every year. In North America, the is one completed suicide every 15 minutes, but for every completed suicide, there are 15 attempted suicides. That is one every MINUTE.
- Suicide has been reported as the second leading cause of death among teenagers, exceeded only by traffic accidents.
- The suicide rate for youth aged 10-14 has more than doubled since 1980.
- Both in Europe and in North America, suicide is about four times more common among men than women. Among 15 to 19-year-olds, boys are about four times more likely to complete suicide than girls, but girls are twice as likely to attempt suicide.
- Four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warnings.
- A person has a higher risk of suicide if their parent, close relative or close friend has taken their own life.
- Over 60% of all suicides are completed with a firearm. More than 75% of the increase in the youth suicide is associated with the use of firearms.
- The latest information also indicates that the number of deaths due to armed conflicts in the world is outnumbered 4 to 1 by suicides. Most frightening: there are an estimated 8-25 attempted suicides for each teen suicide death.
What are the Warning Signs of Suicide?
Four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warnings. If you suspect that a child or adolescent is suicidal, be on the lookout for warning signs such as:
- Suicide threats, whether direct and indirect. The people who talk about it, DO attempt it.
- Verbal hints such as “I won’t be around much longer,” “It’s hopeless” or “I won’t see you again.”
- Obsession with death.
- Poems, essays and drawings that refer to death.
- Dramatic change in personality or appearance.
- Irrational, uncharacteristic or bizarre behavior.
- Overwhelming sense of guilt or shame.
- Putting affairs in order (giving away favorite possessions or throwing away important belongings).
- Sudden cheerfulness after a period of depression.
- Hallucinating or experiencing bizarre thoughts.
- Changed eating or sleeping patterns.
- Severe drop in school performance
What Should I Do If I Think A Young Person Is Suicidal?
- Ask the child or teen if he or she is feeling depressed or thinking about suicide. Speaking openly and honestly will provide a chance for the child to open up to you and for you to express how much you care. Listen to their thoughts and feelings in a caring and respectful manner.
- Let the child or teen know that you care and want to help.
- Provide the child or teen with local resources, such as a crisis hotline to call, or a mental health clinic to visit. If the child or teen is a student, find out if there are any available mental health professionals at the school, and let the child know about them.
- Seek professional help. It is essential to seek expert advice from a mental health professional who has experience helping depressed children and teens. Alert key adults in the child’s or teen’s life — family, friends or teachers and ask for their professional assistance for the young person.
- Inform the child’s or teen’s parent(s). If it were YOUR child, wouldn’t YOU want to know?
- Trust your instincts. The situation may be serious, so seek immediate help. If necessary break a confidence in order to save a life.
What are the effects of suicide?
The effects of suicidal behavior or completed suicide on friends and family members can be devastating. Individuals who lose a loved one from suicide (suicide survivors) tend to experience more complicated grief reaction to their loss. They are often preoccupied with the reason for the suicide, the “WHY”, while at the same time wanting to deny or hide the cause of death, wondering if they could have prevented it, or even feeling blamed for the problems that preceded the suicide, feeling rejected by their loved one, and stigmatized by others.
Survivors may experience a great range of conflicting emotions about the deceased themselves, feeling everything from intense sadness about the loss, their helpless to prevent it, longing for the person they lost; and yet at the same time anger at the deceased for taking their own life. Also we should acknowledge that there can be a sense of RELIEF if the suicide took place after difficult years of physical or mental illness in their loved one. These conflicting reactions are understandable given that the person they are grieving is at the same time the victim and the perpetrator of the fatal act.
How can people cope with the suicide of a loved one?
The grief associated with the suicide of a loved one presents intense and unique challenges, including:
- Guilt about having not been able to prevent their loved one from killing themselves.
- Friends and family may be more likely to experience regret about whatever conflicts or other problems they had in their relationship with the deceased.
- Some may even feel guilty about living while their loved one is not.
- Individuals may want to deny or hide the true cause of death, wondering if they could have prevented it, fearing being stigmatized by others.
- Some self-help techniques for coping with the suicide of a loved one include: avoiding isolation by staying involved with others; sharing the experience by joining a support group or keeping a journal; thinking of ways to handle it when other life experiences trigger painful memories about the loss; understanding that getting better involves feeling better some days and worse on other days; resisting pressure to get over the loss, and the suicide survivor’s doing what is right for themselves in their efforts to recover.
While these suggestions may be helpful, the difficulty is that generally, coping tips for grieving a death through suicide are nearly as different and numerous as there are bereaved individuals. The willingness to care of themselves through continuing regular eating habits and nutrition and by getting extra rest can help strengthen their ability to endure this very difficult event.
To help children and adolescents cope emotionally with the suicide of a sibling, friend or family member, it is important to ensure they receive consistent caretaking and frequent interaction with supportive adults.
All children and teens can benefit from being reassured they did not cause their loved one to kill themselves, which goes a long way toward lessening the tendency children and adolescents have for blaming themselves for the situation and any angry feelings they may have harbored against their lost loved one for the suicide.
For school-aged and older children, appropriate ongoing participation in school, social, and extracurricular activities is necessary to a successful resolution of grief. For teens, maintaining positive relationships with peers becomes vitally important in helping them figure out how to deal with a loved one’s taking their own life. Depending on the adolescent, they even may find interactions with peers and family more helpful than formal sources of support like their school counsellor.
While the statistics on youth suicide are frightening, it is important to remember that depression and suicidal feelings are both real and treatable. The majority of suicides and suicide attempts are not designed to simply “get attention,” but are expressions of extreme distress and pain.
Studies show that suicide attempts among young people may be based on long-standing problems and triggered by a specific event. Adolescents who are suicidal may view a temporary troubling situation as a permanent condition. Feelings of anger and resentment combined with exaggerated guilt can lead to impulsive, self-destructive acts.
We need to remind them that suicide is a permanent solution to what is after all a temporary problem. The main motive for suicide is to “end the pain.” We must validate the fact that they are indeed in pain, but reassure them that we will help them to find solutions to ease and end that pain. And then prove that we mean it in our follow up.