It is very scary for parents to think about the possibility that their children would take their own lives. Parents of children who have thoughts of suicide are constantly worried about their children and wondering how they can support them. It can be utterly devastating for parents whose children attempted suicide or have even taken their lives.
Unfortunately, suicide is a leading cause of death among young people, including middle school and high school students, in the United States. Thousands of teens die by suicide every year, and there are far more unsuccessful suicide attempts.
The teenage years can be very challenging for both parents and children. Teenagers are trying to separate and become independent from their parents, and yet they need some support, guidance, and connection from their parents. This developmental task of needing to separate creates a tension that can make it difficult for quality connection to happen.
I have been working with children and teenagers for the last 36 years as a licensed social worker/ family therapist (26 years) and as a teacher (21 years). Through all this experience, I have learned what the root causes of teenage suicide are. In my first blog on teen suicide, I shared five root causes of why teens commit suicide. I also shared some of the warning signs and risk factors to look for if you think your child might be at risk of suicide. In part 2 of this series, I will share five additional root causes. In part 3, I share the final root causes as well as some final thoughts.
6. Feeling Like A Burden — Difficult to Reach Out for Support
One of the most challenging aspects of suicide prevention is that young people who are having thoughts of suicide often feel like a burden. These individuals with thoughts of suicide usually are dealing with depression, anxiety, bullying, developmental trauma, or PTSD, and they are feeling a lot of shame and wanting to isolate. Isolation in the midst of any mental health challenges will only worsen their symptoms and cause more isolation. It can be a vicious circle.
I have had my own experiences of dealing with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and I have found it difficult at times to reach out for help. Reaching out for support and connection is what is needed, but it can be challenging to do because a lot of people don’t understand how to listen empathically without giving advice and how to be supportive through simply being fully present and listening without judgement.
When people are going through mental health issues, they are in a dark and helpless place, and it can be challenging to find consistent support from friends or family. Sometimes depression or anxiety can go on for years, and depressed and anxious youth can begin to feel like a burden. Friends can get tired of supporting someone who is depressed and anxious, and eventually they can drift away and stop being friends.
7. Overwhelmed Nervous Systems — Disconnected Youth
A high school teacher who has taught for 40 years commented to me that he has seen a steady decline in students’ passion over the years. He was wondering why this is happening. I believe that this is happening because young people’s brains and nervous systems are constantly functioning in a protective, survival mode.
When our nervous systems feel unsafe and threatened, they will automatically cause us to speed up and take action. If action doesn’t relieve the threat and create emotional and physical safety, then the nervous system will cause a person to go into a shut down mode by withdrawing, becoming passive, and isolating.
I believe that young people are so overwhelmed with the intensity and speed of life and with the many demands and pressures from school, social media, and screen time that their attention is being pulled in so many directions. Teenagers are in a constant state of stimulation and are drowning in too much information.
In order to cope and feel safe in this sea of overwhelming stimulation and information, they become passive and disengaged and then turn to their phones for connection. This protective, survival mode is good for survival in times of crisis or danger, but it is not good for fostering long term mental health. It seems that youth are feeling more and more disconnected as they become more and more connected through technology.
Technology is an important part of teenagers’ lives, and it helps them in so many positive ways. It is critical to support them in learning how to set limits with how much screen time that they are getting and how to use the majority of their time on technology in meaningful and empowering ways.
8. Lack of Meaning and Purpose — A Sense of Emptiness
Most adolescents have not been supported or encouraged to explore their purpose for being on this planet. Middle school and high school would be a great time to foster this exploration.
It would be wonderful to support young people in exploring what their strengths or talents are and how they can use them to be of support and service to society. It also would be wonderful to support them in exploring the benefit of the challenges in their lives and how their purpose in life can arise from their pain or challenges.
Having a clear purpose can keep hope alive and help young people to hang in there during dark times until the light returns in their lives.
9. Being of Service — Action Leading to Empowerment
One of the best ways to enhance mental health is to be of service to others in need. A research study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies examined the data of 70,000 participants and found that people who volunteered once a month reported better mental health than those who volunteered less frequently or not at all. (See research information shared by the University of California – Berkley) When we are helping other people, it makes us feel good and boosts our mood and builds a sense of community and connection.
Some of my favorite moments as a teacher were connected to supporting my students in doing two service projects a year. The empathy and concern of children for protecting the environment or for helping those that were homeless or hungry was so inspiring and motivating to me. Watching my students passionately raise money for the service projects always gave me hope for the future.
Volunteering and/or doing a service project can help young people to see and experience the power that they have to make a difference in the world and make a difference in their communities. It is a very tangible and real experience that will encourage them to have hope even in dark times and to take action.
I was so inspired when I sat in on a meeting recently of middle school students whose after school club focused on educating other students about mental health. These students took their own challenges and used them as motivation to support other students in learning about mental health.
10. A Narrow Focus — Dependence on Medications
We definitely live in a world of putting band-aids on major emotional wounds and not addressing the underlying causes of mental health issues. We are living in such a fast-paced world where quick fixes seem like the only solutions. One of the quick fixes that is becoming a major form of treatment is taking a medication. A Psychology Today article, Are Children and Adolescents Overprescribed Psychiatric Medications? shared a survey from the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health reporting that 12.9 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds (1 in 8) are taking medications.
Medications for mental health issues can be complicated to find the right balance and dosage, and some of the medications can make depression and anxiety worse. There are often unpleasant side effects which can be tough for teenagers to experience.
When family doctors, pediatricians, and psychiatrists see young people who are dealing with depression and anxiety, they often will immediately put them on medications without exploring the root causes, like trauma, high sensitivity, digestive issues, diet, or other social or family issues that might be impacting the mental health of young people.
Medications for mental health can be extremely important, especially in times of crisis, but it is also important to take a wholistic approach which involves therapy, exercise, and diet.
What Can You Do?
If your child is going through very stressful life events or difficult times, seek out a qualified mental health professional who clicks with your child and support her in getting to her sessions. Suicidal ideation is a treatable mental condition, Be sure to also reach out for support and guidance for yourself from a qualified mental health professional. Talk to your child openly about emotions and create an environment where s(he) feels safe coming to you when they are feeling intense emotions and struggling in some way.
In Part 3 of this series (the final part), we will continue to explore the root causes of suicide and more ways that you can support your child in strengthening their mental health.