This past weekend, I was at the Secular Eclectic Academic Homeschool Conference. One of the most important sessions I attended was about teens and mental health, and I wanted to pass along some of the wonderful work the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is doing for teen mental health and suicide prevention.
One of the big take-aways from this session is that we should be having layered conversations not only about mental health with our children and teens, especially by age 13 and onward, but also specifically we should be talking about suicide. The suicide rate for American teens (2016 statistics) was 6,159 reported deaths by suicide for youth ages 10-24.
It is the SECOND leading cause of death for teens!
If the second leading cause of death was due to lack of seat belt use or eating tomatoes or whatever, we would be talking about it.
But because it is suicide, we don’t talk about it.
There is a very steep incline in terms of suicide death between the ages of 10 to ages 14-16 (meaning it is very rare to have a death from suicide at age 10, but then the curve of number of deaths by suicide by age goes up very sharply). Suicide cuts across all ethnic groups. No one is immune. Every person in my session had been touched by suicide in some way.
Girls attempt suicide more than boys, but boys are more successful in succeeding and killing themselves, and for every death by suicide 100-200 teens make an attempt. Up to 17 percent of teens have reported attempting suicide in the last year and 8.6 percent attempted suicide more than once. It is not “attention seeking,” as some onlookers ask – it is often a feeling of wanting to disappear and not be a burden. It is complete hopelessness.
Risk factors include:
- Health factors: undiagnosed or underdiagnosed mental health disease
- Pyschological risk factor such as perfectionism/very black and white thinking (which is normal but should move past black and white thinking in upper adolescence)/perfectionism
- Past history of abuse/brain injury/Suicide in family.
- Life events can be a trigger but not the only thing.
Warning signs include changes in behavior for your teen, withdrawing, isolating, agitation or being easily angered, increased anxiety, changes in sleep or appetite, expression of suicidal thoughts, giving possessions away. Usually the person feels hopeless with no reason to live, feels as if they are a burden to others, feels trapped and in unbearable pain. Hopelessness is a major feature. Humiliation can be another risk factor/warning sign for suicide in teens, when teens often feel as if everything they do is in a fishbowl of everyone looking at them.
Protective factors against death by suicide include feeling connected, regular health care and mental health care, learning and using coping strategies, and being willing to seek help.
You can acknowledge your teen’s changed behavior, and you can say you have noticed that they seem to be dealing with a lot and that sometimes people who are dealing with a lot may think about killing themselves. It does NOT increase suicide if you talk about it, or directly ask about it. It may provide some relief to the teenager, and you can also then know the teen’s ideas or possible intentions and reassure them that they are not alone and that help is available and GET THEM HELP.
At this point, not only is immediate mental health contact needed along with the immediate reduction of what is stressing the teen, but also TAKE the step to secure any item that could be used lethally – unload and dissassemble firearms that might be in the home and LOCK them away, take any old prescription medicine hanging around and get rid of it, etc. You can call 1-800-273-TALK or text TALK to 741-741 in the United States for help. Do NOT leave your child alone!
Here are some of the free resources mentioned in this session so you can keep having these conversations with your teens. There is an Ad Council campaign and series of You Tube videos called #seizetheawkward. It was done by a number of actors/You Tube stars and while the ad campaign may seem edgy to you, in group testing these were the only ads that got the teens’ attention to watch. It is aimed for 16-24 year olds. Here is one of the Ad Council videos to get you started, but there are number of them you can watch with your teens and get those conversations rolling. #seizetheawkward
1-800-273-TALK or text TALK to 741 741
The American Foundation For Suicide Prevention (there are chapters in all 50 states in the United States)
More Than Sad is the program developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Just like talking about healthy relationships, about sex, about drugs and drinking, let’s keep talking to our teens about mental health, suicide risk, and coping strategies.