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Youth and Suicide

The recent suicides of high profile names has incited public conversation about suicide. It’s a topic that is usually relegated to hushed tones.

Our society has come a long way in reframing its ideology about mental illness including depression, but we still have a long way to go. We tend to view depression, for example,  differently than we view other illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes. Some still think of depression as a character flaw, the result of bad parenting, or even personal weakness. That stigma only works against people from seeking help.

The Indiana Youth Institute shared two disturbing statistics in an April, 2014 Brief: Indiana has the highest rate of students who have contemplated suicide and the country’s second-highest rate of high school students who have attempted suicide. (National Institutes of Health). The Brief states, “Deaths from suicide are only part of the problem for Indiana youth; more young people survive suicide attempts than die, and many of these individuals seriously injure themselves in the attempt.”

When it comes to youth, the discussion should be on proms, summer jobs and graduation parties, right? As parents, we should be stressing about missed curfews and assignments that weren’t turned in on time, not worrying about whether our child will live to see another day.

Youth suicide is not an easy subject, but it is an important and potentially life-saving, conversation. Most of us, at some point, feel sad, angry, anxious or stressed. We go through challenging days in parenting, marriage, work and school that may drag us down for a day or so. Even grey winter days can give us the “blues”. Typically, those feelings quickly subside and we return to feeling healthy and happy.

Sometimes, though, sad, anxious or despondent feelings linger and one can’t just “shake them off.” If you notice an acquaintance or loved one struggling with these unhealthy feelings, you may be the key to saving his or her life.

Suicide affects all demographic groups, yet some groups are at higher risk than others, as reported by IYI. Youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are four times more likely than their straight peers to attempt suicide. Youth questioning their sexuality are three times more likely to attempt suicide (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), especially if coming out is likely to cause family conflict, according to the Family Acceptance Project.

The CDC has identified other risk factors for attempting/committing suicide, including youth that have: cultural or religious beliefs which suggest suicide as a solution, easy access to lethal methods (e.g. firearms, pills or poisons), or stressful life events (e.g. death of a loved one,  relationship breakup, financial insecurity, difficulty in school, or chaotic/violent family environment). Additional risk factors cited by the CDC and Indiana Department of Health include a personal or family history of: suicide, depression, mental illness, substance abuse, self-injury, major physical illness, being bullied, or being abused or mistreated.

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center states that youth who are considering suicide may talk about feeling isolated, trapped, hopeless or burdensome, being in unbearable pain, or seeing no reason for living. Sadly, the CDC found that 29% of Indiana’s high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless almost everyday for two or more consecutive weeks in the past year, and warns that 1 in 5 Indiana high school students seriously considered attempting suicide in the last 12 months. With such high odds, chances are good that each of us knows (perhaps unknowingly) a youth who has considered suicide.

Suicide prevention and mental health experts tell us to be attune to additional warning signs in youth: making a plan to attempt suicide; having a history of previous attempts; looking for or acquiring the means to kill oneself (such as searching online or seeking access to firearms or pills); acting recklessly or engaging in risky activities; feeling rage or uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge; experiencing dramatic mood changes, withdrawing from friends and family or loss of interest in work, school or other previously enjoyed activities; or, giving away cherished possessions.

The National Center for the Prevention of Youth Suicide reminds us that many who contemplate suicide really want to live, but cannot see alternatives to their problems. Youth may joke or hint about suicide – NCPYS says it’s okay to directly ask, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” Despite popular belief, talking about suicide doesn’t cause suicide. Don’t assume that a person considering suicide is looking for attention and do not downplay his or her plan.

You can help by listening carefully, encouraging the individual to express his or her feelings, and  accompanying him or her to visit a professional, such as a family doctor or mental health provider. Do not leave the person alone and restrict access to lethal methods (such as firearms, pills, or poisons). Never agree to keep suicidal thinking a secret – a trusted adult, such as a parent, teacher, counselor, faith leader – can be a help.

If the person is in immediate danger, call 911.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a network of 24-hour crisis centers and is available to anyone in suicidal crisis, at 800/273-TALK (8255). The Trevor Project provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services specifically geared toward LGBTQ people aged 13-24. The Trevor Project’s hotline number is 866/488-7386. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has numerous suicide prevention resources available online at www.samhsa.gov.

The American Association of Suicidology, a leader in suicide prevention and support services, estimates that a suicide intimately affects 6 other people. In reality, that number is much bigger, because all of us are impacted when the light of one person is extinguished.