Every weekend, we go out as a community and band together to raise awareness for some issue. We stay up all night and walk to honor cancer survivors. We dress up for galas that support autism research and we sleep in tents so that more people will understand homelessness and poverty.
We do all of this and yet, there is a disease that takes the lives of more teenagers annually than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. Despite this, its name goes largely unspoken.
If you start to ask questions about suicide, experts will quickly begin to use words like ashamed, afraid, stigma and isolated. In fact, they say that these factors are the primary reason why teenagers often commit suicide with little or no attempt at getting the help that they need before: they are scared.
As our community still grieves from losing teenagers to suicide in the past year and as it tugs at our hearts to search for a solution for this issue, the first step must be this:
We need to stop being afraid and start talking about suicide.
Annually in August our kids start preparing to go back to school, getting new shoes and new school clothes as their parents gather up supplies from a school-provided list.
On the first day of school, these kids pack it all up into a backpack that sometimes can weigh up to 20 pounds and they board a bus that takes them back to school. When this happens, some kids are not only carrying the books in their backpacks, they are literally carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders as the anxiety that comes along with school bears down upon them.
There are several types of teenagers for which school and the stressors that come with it can cause anxiety, which can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts.
Students who are considered perfectionists, those type-A high-achievers who set high expectations for themselves and strive to meet them at all costs are at risk for anxiety and pressure.
Conversely, those that suffer from learning disabilities, who feel pressure to learn the same way that their peers do and may feel that their teachers do not understand them are also at risk for anxiety and depression related to school.
These are not the only ones, either. Teenagers who have low self-esteem, those who are considered “loners” without friends or a support group, and those who suffer from mental health issues or experience abuse or neglect in their home are all particularly susceptible to the added anxiety that school brings.
If this sounds like most all kids that you know, it really is. It’s one of the reasons that there are more than 5,400 suicide attempts every day by young people who are in middle and high school.
Why is this happening?
For every reality, there is an underlying cause. But for teenage suicide and the rise in mental health issues for that generation, it’s tough for experts to decide on just one.
Wendy Lay, director of children’s services at Four Rivers Behavioral Health, cautions that anxiety and depression that are so severe that they could lead to suicide typically results from unresolved issues that compound on top of one another.
“We are now more aware of the effect of trauma in a teenager’s life,” she explains. “Trauma can be anything from the teenager’s experience of parents divorce, death of a parent or other significant person, natural disaster, move or medical event. Teens absorb not only what directly happens to them but also the struggles of their parents and friends.”
“When those traumas are overlooked or untreated, they can lead to anxiety or depression. So, sometimes it is what is happening to them right now, but it might also be what has happened to them in the past,” she says, explaining that the need for FRBH services is so great that they regularly have between 800 and 1,000 open cases in the FRBH’s Center for Specialized Children’s Services alone.
Gretchen Roof, FRBH director of clinical services, points to a biological reason why teenagers are unable to cope with the pressures of their world in the same ways that adults do.
“Kids are biologically different,” she says. “The part of our brain that controls things like impulsivity and decision-making is not fully formed until we are 25 or sometimes maybe even 28 years old. Because of this, teenagers are not capable of making the same level of decisions as a full grown adult.”
“Additionally, they also haven’t had the life experiences that an adult has had. So, as we go along, we have struggles and we get through those hard times and we learn that things do improve. We can then base our current decisions on that experience. Kids don’t have as many of those past experiences to call upon.”
Some experts point to societal factors that are different for this age group than any that have come before.
“Social media has supposedly connected us, but I think loneliness is at an all-time high,” says Charles Moore, senior pastor at First Baptist Paducah. “I think the reason is that we are not really connected, it’s a pseudo connection.”
Pastor Moore, who experienced a teenage suicide first-hand in his congregation and says that “more than anything I’ve experienced, it rocked this church to the core,” attributes much of the shame associated with mental illness to social media as well.
“There is this illusion on social media that everyone’s life is wonderful, it’s their best photos, their best tweets, their best moments and it’s a portrayal of life that isn’t real,” he says. “So you have people who look and think everyone has all of this great stuff going on and here I am without that.”
How can we kill suicide?
From all experts, we hear one statement: suicide is preventable.
Most agree that if a person, regardless of their age, can ask for and receive help for their depression or anxiety, then their risk of suicide is diminished greatly.
How, then, can we start a conversation that leads to a reduced stigma around suicide and mental health illnesses?
Nathan Joyce, pastor of Heartland Worship Center, believes this begins at a very basic level.
“We need to be aware of the gravity and the universality of this issue,” he says. “We can no longer believe that anyone is exempt from this.”
“I encourage everyone to see the goodness of their life and their own personal value,” Pastor Joyce says. “To be loved by God is value and to know that God finds beauty in you and has a plan for your life is valuable. Life is too rough without that.”
Along with a strong faith and other support systems, Gretchen and Wendy urge constant dialog between parents and teenagers.
“Check in with kids, really be present with them and talk, but mostly listen,” Gretchen advises. “Be attuned to all of those things, so maybe when there is some subtle clue, you might catch it. Find a reason to talk to your children. Insist upon dinner together two nights a week or take an extra lap around the block the next time you are in the car with your son or daughter. Create opportunities for your child to talk to you.”
“If your kids say they have been feeling depressed or anxious, listen to that. Some parents get very frightened by that because it brings up volumes of fears for them and they look for some quick fix. Instead, give hope by saying things like ‘Things will get better, we will make sure that things get better.”
In upcoming issues, we will look more closely at factors that contribute to mental illness and suicide and hone in on solutions that will help to Kill Suicide.
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