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When I’m With You: Addressing Youth Suicide – How to begin approaching the epidemic of youth suicide.

The current hit song “I Like Me Better” by Lauv highlights the powerful nature of connection with others. Perhaps it’s those relationships that hold the key to addressing the epidemic that is youth suicide.

September marks National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, an important time to re-educate ourselves as to how best we can keep those we love safe and alive.

The Jason Foundation, a youth suicide prevention organization, has established a “Triangle of Prevention,” by providing students, parents and teachers the tools and resources necessary to try to identify and help at-risk youth.

Those they say are most at risk include the following.

  • Gay and lesbian youth
  • Learning disabled youth
  • Loners
  • Youth with low self-esteem
  • Depressed youth
  • Students in serious trouble
  • Abused, molested, or neglected youth
  • Youth with a genetic predisposition

Citing data collected by the Search Institute, CNN reported this month that “nearly 14 percent” of the 120,617 youth surveyed (ranging in age from 11-19) reported trying to kill themselves. Transgender teens reported the highest rates of suicide attempts (Scutti, 2018).

The Jed Foundation also notes that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teenagers and young adults and offers the following “warning signs” that someone may be thinking of dying by suicide.

  • Talking about or making plans for suicide
  • Displaying hopelessness about the future
  • Expressing marked emotional pain or distress
  • Showing changes in behavior, such as:
    • Withdrawal from friends and family
    • Changes in sleep (increased or decreased)
    • Anger or hostility that seems out of character or out of context
    • Recent increased agitation

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), sponsor of the CureStigma campaign, says, “Each year, more than 41,000 individuals die by suicide, leaving behind their friends and family members to navigate the tragedy of loss … Too often the feelings of shame and stigma prevent them from talking openly” (NAMI, 2018).

“Postvention” recommendations for survivors were addressed in a February 2017 Psychology Today article, “Falling to Pieces,” following the suicide death of a Connecticut prep school senior. In it were common questions that were asked after a suicide and answered by Scott Poland, Ed.D., a CARE advisory board member and professor at Nova Southeastern University.

Why did he die by suicide? We are never going to know the answer to that question as the answer has died with him. The focus needs to be on helping students with their thoughts and feelings and everyone in the school community working together to prevent future suicides.

Didn’t he make a poor choice and is it OK to be angry with him? He did make a very poor choice, and research has found that many young people who survived a suicide attempt are very glad to be alive and never attempted suicide again. You have permission for any and all of your feelings in the aftermath of suicide, and it is OK to be angry with him. The suicide of a young person has been compared to throwing a rock into a pond with ripple effects in the school, church, and community at large, and there is often a search for a simple explanation. These ripple effects have never been greater than at the present, with the existence of social networks (e.g., Facebook) … Many individuals who died by suicide had untreated mental illnesses, and it is important that everyone is aware of resources that are available in the school and community so that needed treatment can be obtained.

Isn’t someone or something to blame for this suicide? The suicide victim made this decision and there is no one to blame. The decision to die by suicide involved every interaction and experience throughout the young person’s entire life up until the moment he died, and yet it did not have to happen. It is the fault of no one.

How can I cope with this suicide? It is important to remember what or who has helped you cope when you have had to deal with sad things in your life before. Please turn to the important adults in your life for help and share your feelings with them. It is important to maintain normal routines and proper sleeping and eating habits, and to engage in regular exercise. Please avoid drugs and alcohol. Resiliency, which is the ability to bounce back from adversity, is a learned behavior. Everyone does best when surrounded by friends and family who care and by viewing the future in a positive manner.

Important considerations, one and all.

Even so, perhaps our best efforts can be expended on preventing suicides in the first place. JFI states that four out of five teens who attempt suicide give “clear warning signs.” Because peers may be the first to become aware of a plan for suicide, TeensHealth provides some tips on how they might respond, with two of the most important ones being to ask and listen. “If you have a friend who is talking about suicide or showing other warning signs, don’t wait to see if he or she starts to feel better. Talk about it. Most of the time, people who are considering suicide are willing to discuss it if someone asks them out of concern and care … Listen to your friend without judging and offer reassurance that you’re there and you care. If you think your friend is in immediate danger, stay close—make sure he or she isn’t left alone” (TeensHealth, 2018).

Others analyzing recent research, including The Social Good founder Curtis Hougland, see trends leading away from telltale signs. He told me, “The data is showing that suicide is less related to mental health disorders. It is often a cultural contagion, and timing is everything.”

Also in play is the precipitous rise in the use of smartphones by young people. In her November 2017 article “With Teen Mental Health Deteriorating Over Five Years, There’s a Likely Culprit,” Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, points to evidence of a link between the proliferation of smartphones and increasing rates of mental health issues among young people. She says, “Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens. In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless—classic symptoms of depression—surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent” (Twenge, 2017).

More recently, in her New York Times op-ed “Taking Away the Phones Won’t Solve Our Teenagers’ Problems,” Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary, a psychology professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, pushes back on the notion that “excessive and compulsive” smartphone use causes mental health problems. She says, “In other words, there simply does not yet exist a prospective longitudinal study showing that, all things being equal, teenagers who use smartphones more often or in certain ways are more likely than their fellows to subsequently develop mental illness.”

Dennis-Tiwary advocates for large studies following people over time to reveal correlation and concludes, “Yes, we should devote resources to making smartphones less addictive, but we should devote even more resources to addressing the public health crisis of anxiety that is causing teenagers so much suffering and driving them to seek relief in the ultimate escape machines” (Dennis-Tiwary, 2018).

In the meantime, we can all give the gift of being with the young people we know.

For immediate help, 24/7: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

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