As I See It: What can be done about teen suicide?

William Shuttleworth

Death by suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people in the 10 to 24 age group. For all we know and have studied, the incidence of suicide in young people continues to increase in our country. Each day in America, 3,069 high school students attempt to take their lives. This does not include middle school children. More teens die by suicide than from cancer, heart disease, birth defects, pneumonia, flu, stroke and chronic lung disease combined. A person takes his or her life once every 12 minutes. In total, 47,000 people in this country died by suicide last year, half of them using guns. The rate of death by guns with teens has increased by 82% in the last 10 years. We know that boys take their lives four times more than girls, yet girls make three times as many attempts. Sadly, when a boy becomes suicidal, they are far more likely to take their own life.

So, why? Why are our most precious gifts from God taken away from us by their own hands? We have some clues. We know that mental illness, family history of suicide, gender identification concerns, impulsivity, anger control issues, social isolation, family problems, sexual abuse and loss of a close relative are often triggers. A recent study in the November issue of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry concluded that “current evidence suggests excessive use of social media impacts suicide risk.” The key to this sentence is “excessive.” The study found that moderate use of internet is not a danger and no use of internet points to social isolation. Moderation is the key. Yes, cyberbulling leads to self-loathing and feeling unloved and parents need to monitor what messages their children are getting from others.

We also know that intense anxiety to do well in school can become overwhelming to many teens. We also know that poverty is a factor, especially when a teen lives among wealthy people. In fact, people who earn less than their neighbors by a significant amount are five times more likely to take their lives. Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of death by suicide in the country, the third lowest. That is good news. The states with the highest rates, Alaska, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota, are all lovely but isolated states that is a major risk factor suicide.

What are the signs? There are a lot to be aware of and in fact four out of five teens who attempt to take their lives actually tell someone they are thinking about it. Take them seriously. When you see a teen who is intensely sad, no longer caring for things they once enjoyed or valued, engaging in risk taking behavior, giving away personal possessions, substance abuse and social withdrawal, take action. It is OK to ask directly, “Have you thought of taking your life?”

What to do? There are no easy answers and it can happen in any family. But, I have five recommendations that may help.

1. Spend time with your teens. Oh, they will say they can’t stand the sight of being seen in public with you, but find common ground. Go for coffee, work out together, see a movie, cook together, or go camping. The dining room table is one of the best antidotes to self-harm. Too many families seldom eat together.

2. Monitor your child’s free time and use of social media. Know what they are doing, where they hang out and with whom.

3. Get kids moving. Get them off the couch, off the television, video screen and phone and get them outside. Go hiking, camping, skiing, swimming, work out at the YWCA with them. Nature is curative. It is healing, reduces stress and brings you and your family close together.

4. Don’t ignore the signs. Act, be direct, take action. They want you to be the parent. If you see excessive anxiety, sadness, isolation, don’t wait. Find help. Look at how you can reduce the pressure in your child’s life. Getting the highest SAT score or taking all AP classes doesn’t ensure success or happiness.

5. Know where to go. The National Suicide Prevention phone number is 1-800-273-8255. The Trevor Project in Massachusetts is a support group for depressed LGBTQ youth, 1-866-488-7386. Or call Samaritans at 877-870-4673.

We are not powerless. All of us can be a resource in this community. Parents of children who have taken their lives never recover. Give them your unconditional love and prayers. Let’s not sweep this issue under the rug of denial. Let’s make sure we do all we can in our community, our state.

William Shuttleworth is a retired educator, school superintendent and served as a psychological consultant for over 35 years. A resident of Newburyport, he recently walked across America to raise support for veterans.

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