Hope. When we think about a heartbreaking subject like suicide, it’s probably the last thing that runs through our mind. Nevertheless, if we face the tragic realities of teen suicide head-on, learn to recognize the warning signs, and acknowledge the progress we’ve made in combating the emotional and societal factors that put teens at risk, we will find ourselves in a position to foster hope: for ourselves, for our communities, and, most importantly, for our future generations.
Facing the Facts
According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death in teens between the ages of 12 and 18. This means that each year, more young lives are lost to suicide than to heart disease, cancer, stroke, pneumonia and lung disease combined.
While males and females are both at risk, symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges can manifest differently for girls and boys. More often than not, girls show more visible levels of sadness, where boys are prone to act out aggressively or withdraw altogether. Boys are also susceptible to more violent forms of self-injurious behavior, like (examples), while girls are more commonly choose passive means, like substance abuse and intentional overdose. As a whole, teens struggle to verbalize their feelings, making it difficult to reach out in times of high stress or emotional turmoil.
Eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health is the first, and perhaps the most challenging step towards effective prevention. Opening the dialogue in our homes, in our schools, and in the extracurricular programs our kids engage with will encourage teens and adults to prioritize mental health in the same way we prioritize physical health.
Knowing the Signs
The Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance System, a national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), showed that 4 out of 5 teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs.
Using guidelines like the American Psychiatric Association’s Typical or Troubled program can help parents, teachers and other caregivers determine whether or not a child’s behavior demands more serious intervention. Everyone has bad days here and there, but if the severity, intensity and duration of your teen’s behavioral changes have increased and continue to do so, there may be more cause for alarm.
Here are some general “red flags” to watch out for:
- Drastic changes in social behavior (withdrawing from friends, loss of interest in hobbies)
- Extreme shift in sleeping patterns (sleeping too much, not sleeping at all)
- Sudden decline in academic performance
- Increase in negative behavior or mood (unprecedented irritability, anger, violence)
- Lingering loss of appetite, or frequent overeating
- Expressing feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, or self-hatred
Teens who have recently endured economic hardship, suffered from severe injury or other physical trauma, and those who are grieving the loss of a loved one are at an increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior. Similarly, teens who have lost someone to suicide are statistically more likely to contemplate suicide themselves.
Of course, we can’t expect someone suffering from the mental ailments that can contribute to suicidal thoughts to recognize the changes in their own behavior that may alarm loved ones. This is especially true for teens, whose minds are still developing emotionally. It is our obligation as adults to truly know our kids, and to recognize these warning signs as early as possible – even if they can’t see them themselves.
Hope for the Future
For parents, teachers, medical professionals and other adults who care, our mission must be to integrate mental and behavioral health into every aspect of wellness education as early as possible.
The goal is to create a reliable network of support for teens. The more connected they feel to the trusted adults in their lives, the more likely they will be to reach out for help when they need it most.
Proactive prevention is at its most effective when entire communities are involved and engaged with mental health education and outreach initiatives. South Shore’s Youth Health Connection (YHC) is just one of many programs dedicated to building strong relationships between healthcare providers and school-based healthcare professionals.
By hosting interactive, long-term awareness events for students, like their “How Not to Keep a Secret” program, facilitating in-school conversations about prevention and general wellness, and providing training, educational materials and other behavioral health resources to parents and faculty, initiatives like Youth Health Connection are normalizing conversations about mental health on a national scale.
While tragic realities of teen suicide may render us speechless, silence is the enemy. There’s never a wrong place or time to talk to your teen about suicide. Visit South Shore’s Community Resource Directory for guidance with addressing topics like this, or to find the mental health resources available for parents and teens in your community.