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EXTENT OF THE PROBLEM
Death brings sadness to family and friends, but when the death of a young person is self-inflicted it is devastating to those left behind. Learning about what might lead an adolescent to suicide may help those who have lived through it and may help prevent further tragedies.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24 years. The rate of suicides and suicide attempts increases during the adolescent years.
Adolescence is a stressful time. It is a time of major change - changes in how one looks, thinks and feels. This stress can be compounded by major life changes such as parents' divorce, family move, parents' job loss or a family member's military deployment to a war zone. Coupled with the pressure to succeed and be accepted by others, an adolescent's coping and problem-solving abilities may be compromised and can lead to poor decision making. To some, it may appear that their problems are too large or embarrassing to overcome and the only solution is suicide.
Some risk factors are:
- a family history of suicide
- prior suicide attempt or exposure to suicidal behavior of others, including family, peers, in the news or in fiction stories
- undesirable life events or recent losses
- family violence, emotional, physical or sexual abuse
- lack of a social network
- individual or family history of substance abuse.
- confusion about sexuality, especially in the context of an unsupportive family/network or a hostile school environment
- firearm in the home
- one or more mental health issues
These factors may change over time. Adults need to remember not to minimize or discount what their adolescent is going through and to keep the lines of communication open.
SIGNS OF CONCERN
There are adults who think that an adolescent saying he or she is going to kill themselves is just a desire for attention. It's important to realize that if these statements are ignored, the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors leading to the statements may escalate and increase the chance of the individual hurting themselves. Getting attention in the form of crisis visits, doctor's appointments or hospitalization is not usually something that adolescents want. What they are saying is that they are in emotional pain and want help.
What may cause adults to be confused is that the signs of suicidal feelings, thoughts or behavior are often the same as that of depression. The signs below are ones that might be helpful in identifying adolescents who are at risk of attempting suicide, especially when combined with risk factors outlined above.
- changes in eating and sleeping habits
- loss of interest in usual activities
- withdrawal from a friends and family members
- acting out behaviors and running away
- alcohol and drug use
- neglect of personal appearance
- unnecessary risk-taking
- preoccupation with death and dying
- increased physical complaint frequently associated with emotional stress
- loss of interest in school or schoolwork
- feelings of boredom
- difficulty concentrating
- feelings of wanting to die
- lack of response to praise
- indicates plans or efforts toward plans to die by suicide including verbalizing a desire to die
- gives or throws away favorite possessions
- verbal hints or suicide notes
As is seen, many of these signs of increased suicide risk are also signs of depression. That is why it is important that a parent speak to their child when any of these signs are observed. It may be uncomfortable and parents may be reluctant to ask adolescents, but it is important that the teen know that someone is paying attention to them and is willing to listen. Parents are sometimes concerned that they may "give the idea" to their teen and it is quite the opposite. Bringing up the subject without showing shock or disapproval is one of the most helpful things that can be done. It shows the teen that you are taking them seriously and responding to their distress. If a teen is not comfortable talking to a parent, find someone who they are comfortable talking to-another family member, a member of the clergy or a school counselor. If they are contemplating suicide, arrange for professional help. If the threat is immediate, take the person to an emergency room or contact a crisis center. If a parent notices some of the risk factors or other signs and is uncertain how to respond, call a crisis service, suicide hotline, or local mental health center for consultation with a professional who is experienced with suicide assessment and prevention.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) it is important to learn the warning signs of teenage suicide in order to prevent an attempt. This is why it is so important to keep the lines of communication open and to rely on how well you as a parent know your child. Studies have shown that recognition and early intervention of mental and substance use disorders is the most effective way to prevent suicide and suicidal behavior. Remember that most suicidal adolescents do not want death; they just want the pain to stop.
Candice Jenkins has worked with adolescents for over 20 years. She's been with Colonial Behavioral Health since 2010 and previously worked for Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board.