Continuing the Conversation on Teen Suicide: How to Help

“Don’t you know things can change / Things’ll go your way / If you hold on for one more day / Can you hold on for one more day?” ~ ”Hold On” by Wilson Phillips

Our community has felt the rippling effects of tragic suicides over the last year. We continue to grieve the loss of students and loved ones we miss so dearly. We know our community is not the only one experiencing the difficult aftermath of suicide, so we want to raise our voice to raise awareness.

Over the last few months, I have written two posts on the subject of teen suicide. Because this is such an important topic, I decided to split up my posts to do each one justice. First, I gave a general overview of teen suicide. Then I discussed the warning signs. Finally, I want to offer my personal and professional advice about how you can help.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours a day): 1-800-273-8255

As I said, I dedicated an entire post to the warning signs someone considering suicide will likely exhibit. Please refer to that for a greater understanding on that subject. The main indicators are suicidal talk, self-harm, hopelessness, and neglecting appearance/friends/important activities.

If you see any of these warning signs in a friend or family member, the first thing you could do is talk about it. While it may be uncomfortable to discuss suicidal thoughts and behaviors, it may end up curbing a suicide attempt and saving a life. It is worth it! Some ideas to start this conversation could be something like, “I have been feeling concerned about you lately,” or, “Recently, I have noticed some differences in you and wondered how you are doing.” Similarly, you could say, “I wanted to check in with you because you have not seemed yourself lately.” If the person admits to feeling suicidal, you can then ask things like, “When did you begin feeling like this?” or, “Did something happen to make you start feeling this way?” as well as, “How can I best support you right now?” and even, “Have you thought about getting help?” Finally, words of comfort might include, “You are not alone in this. I’m here for you.” Another powerful idea is, “I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help,” as well as, “When you want to give up, tell yourself you will hold off for just one more day, hour, minute—whatever you can manage.”

If someone confides in you that he/she is considering suicide, evaluate the seriousness of the situation. Those at the highest risk for committing suicide in the near future have a specific suicide plan, the means to carry out the plan, a time set for doing it, and an intention to do it. Here is a suggestion for how to assess someone’s risk to suicide:

Low: Some suicidal thoughts. No suicide plan. Says he or she won’t attempt suicide.

Moderate: Suicidal thoughts. Vague plan that isn’t very lethal. Says he or she won’t attempt suicide.

High: Suicidal thoughts. Specific plan that is highly lethal. Says he or she won’t attempt suicide.

Severe: Suicidal thoughts. Specific plan that is highly lethal. Says he or she will attempt suicide.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours a day): 1-800-273-8255

If it seems the person is in the low to moderate range, offer empathy and a listening ear. Let your loved one know that he or she is not alone and that you care. A teen’s school counselors, teachers, or administration are trained and equipped to help too! If you are afraid to talk to someone face to face, call or text a crisis line for advice and referrals. Where applicable, you can help your friend/family member locate a treatment facility or take them to doctor appointments. Overall, I highly recommend encouraging the person to see a certified mental health professional as soon as possible.

If the person is in the high to severe ranges, and a suicide attempt seems imminent, call a local crisis center, dial 911, or take the person to an emergency room immediately. Remove anything that could be potentially harmful, like guns, drugs, knives, and other lethal objects from the vicinity. Do not, under any circumstances, leave a suicidal person alone!

If you are the one experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, surround yourself with people you trust and get help. There are so many resources available today, including the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255) as well as counselors in the schools. They can be trusted to help you. Remember that suicide closely affects at least six people–often many more! Absolutely no one will be better off with you gone…quite the contrary, actually. You matter. You are worthy of love and life. Life is worth fighting for. Do not give up on yourself!

A suicidal person may not ask for help, but that does not mean help is not wanted. People who take their lives do not want to die—they simply want to escape the hurt. Suicide prevention starts with recognizing the warning signs and taking them seriously. If you think a friend or family member is considering suicide (or if you are considering taking your own life), be brave. Speak up. Get help. Talking openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings can save a life, including yours!

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Continuing the Conversation on Teen Suicide: Warning Signs

“There’s no need to go and blow the candle out / Because you’re not done. / You’re far too young / And the best is yet to come.” ~”Lullaby” by Nickelback

Suicide is devastating to family, friends, and a community. The loss from suicide leaves a gaping hole in families, neighborhoods, schools, and communities; each suicide intimately affects at least six other people. Parents, siblings, classmates, coaches, and neighbors may be left wondering if they could have done something to prevent that young person from turning to suicide. In this post I will go over the suicide warning signs someone who is contemplating suicide might exhibit. In a future post, I will discuss how to help this person, or get help if you are the one considering suicide.

The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 1 million people worldwide die each year from suicide. For those who are not in the grips of suicidal depression and despair, it may be difficult and even confusing to understand what would drive so many individuals to take their own lives. However, a suicidal person is in so much pain that he or she can see no other option. This is why knowing what to look for can prevent suicide and provide help and hope as an alternative.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours a day): 1-800-273-8255

WARNING SIGNS

There are many potential warning signs to suicide; the following are some of the most common red flags to look for:

  1. Self-harm or suicidal talk. Take any talk or mention of suicide very seriously. This is not just a warning sign, it is a cry for help!
  2. Talking or writing a lot about death or dying.
  3. Hopelessness. Though subtle, studies have found that hopelessness is a strong predictor of suicide. This hopelessness is often accompanied by “unbearable” feelings, a bleak future, and feeling like there nothing to look forward to.
  4. Loss of interest in day-to-day activities.
  5. Neglect of his/her appearance.
  6. Big changes in eating or sleeping habits.
  7. Withdrawing from friends and family. Increasing social isolation and the desire to be left alone.
  8. Dramatic mood swings or sudden personality changes, such as switching from outgoing to withdrawn or well-behaved to rebellious.
  9. Self-loathing and self-hatred. Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, shame, and self-hatred; feeling like a burden that no one would miss.
  10. Self-destructive behaviors. Increased alcohol or drug use, reckless driving, unsafe sex.
  11. Seeking out lethal means, such as weapons and drugs.
  12. Getting affairs in order. Making out a will, giving away prized possessions, making arrangements for family members.
  13. Saying goodbyes. This might include unusual or unexpected visits or calls to family and friends and saying goodbye to people as if they will not be seeing each other again.

These signals are even more dangerous if the person has a mood disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder, suffers from alcohol dependence, has previously attempted suicide, or has a family history of suicide. Take these red flags very seriously!

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours a day): 1-800-273-8255

If you see or experience any of these warning signs, do not dismiss them! I will write a detailed post on what to say and how to help in these situations next week. If you need immediate help, I suggest approaching a teacher or school counselor–they are trained to assist you and your classmates with this delicate yet urgent matter. Additionally, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available for calls and chats 24 hours a day (1-800-273-8255), and most communities have hotlines you can text for immediate anonymous help. In dire circumstances, call 911.

Knowing these warning signs could save a life. Pay attention to your peers. As always, please do not hesitate to contact me with questions. If you are battling thoughts and feelings of hopelessness and self-harm, please click here to schedule a session. My door is always open for you!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

The Truth Behind the Increase in Teen Suicide

Smart Phones & Teen Suicide - Cluff Counseling - Denton TherapistBetween 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who suffered from depression increased 33 percent in large national surveys, and the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide leapt up 31 percent. The cause of these increased numbers is scary and unfortunately all too familiar!

Ninety-two percent of young adults ages 18-29 own a smartphone. We use our phones to remind us of Grandpa’s birthday, to help us find the nearest ATM, to write down our grocery lists, to send emails, and to waste countless hours on social media. In short, we use our phones for everything. I recently broke my phone (to the point where the screen was black and the entire device wouldn’t function), and it was amazing to me how useless and naked I felt without my smart device. The bottom line: We are too dependent on our phones.

As adults, our brains are fully formed;  we have jobs, kids, responsibilities, and life to focus on. Admittedly, we simply cannot spend all day everyday aimlessly scrolling through Pinterest or Instagram. But teens? Well. Their brains are still forming. Their self-identity and self-esteem is still very much pliable. Their ability to manage time and make choices is still developing. Yet, we give them a smartphone–with limitless ways to waste time–and expect them to be unaffected?

Research has found that teens’ brains are heavily affected by the drug-like symptoms that come with smartphones. In fact, some children and teens are being damaged–sometimes beyond repair. Studies have found a striking correlation between rates of depression and suicide among teens and the dreaded smartphone.  According to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 and 73 percent by 2015…which is exactly when the spike in teen suicide occurred. This increase in depression, suicide attempts, and suicide was found among teens from every background, every race, and every ethnicity in every region of the country. The common thread? Access to a smartphone during formative years.

It’s not just about having a smartphone, but about how the smartphone is used. Researchers have found that teens who spend five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely, than those who spend less than an hour a day, to have at least one suicide risk factor (such as depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

But why?

Let’s look at what is lost when teens are plugged in. For starters, much less time is spent interacting with friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the simplest ways humans find happiness. In a blog post from last May, I wrote about a Japanese concept called amae, which is the deep and innate need we all have to belong. We yearn for it, we need it, and without that feeling of truly belonging, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Next, being fixated on a screen causes and promotes further isolation, which is one of the major risk factors for depression and suicide. Then there is the likelihood of distraction, which leads to worsened performance in school, less sleep, and overall health. This is all happening before we even touch on the emotional drawbacks which include but are not limited to the deafening yells of comparison, the destruction of self-esteem and self-confidence, and the anxiety that will surely accompany the constant noise of a social media-filled world.

Some may say that depression and suicide are heavily influenced by genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma, and that the above statistics were caused due to those factors. Yes, it is true that some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in. But that many? Some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.

If you are wondering what can help remedy this massive epidemic, let me propose three things:

  1. NO MORE SMARTPHONES! If you are one of those parents shaking your head, thinking, No, I need my daughter to be able to call me or message me at any time. Sure, I get that. But why an iPhone? Would a simple flip phone–with calling and texting capabilities, but NO internet–not do the trick?
  2. Limit screen time. Okay. So you do not want to take your kid’s smartphone away. If this is your choice, I strongly recommend that you set limits and boundaries that include time frames for how often the phone can be used (hopefully less than two hours a day), that it not be used during class time, that it is not used inappropriately (like for “sexting”), that it be kept in your room at night (to encourage healthy sleeping patterns), etc.
  3. Be the example. Very recently, in Utah, there was commotion on Instagram because a middle school teacher, in a very religious area, asked her students, “What my parents don’t know about social media is…” These students filled in horrific things. The teacher took her story to the news. It went viral. A social media voice caught wind of this and created a conversation where kids, teachers, parents, grandparents–everyone–agreed that smartphones and social media are like drugs. Not only have we likely given the young a new, modern-day drug to rely on, but we are not helping! Our kids see us glued to our phones and they think that is the norm, they want to mimic us! While the conversation started out about the troubling nature of kids with smartphones, it came full circle to where the problem is the parent’s–both for enabling kids by giving them access to phones, as well as for showing them that it is completely okay to spend hours flippantly scrolling through Instagram. Be the example. Put your phone down and be present.

This may seem like an odd topic for a Marriage and Family Therapist to post about, but if we step back and consider the undeniable link between deteriorating mental health in teens and the use of their smartphones, it suddenly becomes all the more apparent why I care. Help your child stimulate his or her mind by scrolling a little less and tuning in to LIFE a little more. Help them cultivate and enhance meaningful friendships and relationships. Talk to them about how time wasted on their phones and social media makes them feel. Feelings of inadequacy, comparison, and discouragement need to be an indication that it is time to put the phone down. Help your children navigate their feelings so they can form productive habits and make good choices. Protect their mental health by decreasing screen time. If you have questions or need specific help, please contact me. I am happy to help!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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