It’s unimaginable… to be a parent and find your child the victim of teen suicide. School counselors, parents, teachers and mental health professionals have and always will struggle to find help for teens thinking of suicide given its prevalence. In fact, according to Stanford Children’s Health, and many other studies, teen suicide is the third leading cause of death amongst 15 to 24 year olds. It’s devastating, shocking, and such a finality. Unlike depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, teen suicide is sudden, it’s forever, and it can be preceding by absolutely no warning signs.
Education Around Teen Suicide
Do we know enough? The common indicators expressed by experts in teen counseling are: giving away special belongings, withdrawing, using statements like “when I’m not around,” or being infatuated with death and dying. Yet, as many, many parents will attest, teen suicide can also happen completely out of the blue. How can we educate ourselves and teens about suicide to prevent this loss of life so young?
At Peek Counseling, as a teen counselor, I work with families to help adolescents with mental health problems like extreme depression, anxiety, body image issues, self-esteem, bullying, and fear for the future. Teen brains are still being developed and their cerebral cortex is handling a lot of processing. Sometimes a teen can look like an adult, speak like an adult, and even be more responsible than some adults (yes, they sure can), yet we have to remember that anatomically, they are still so sensitive. We need to be aware of this, respect them fully, and also break down what we give them to handle.
Why Are There So Many Occurrences of Teen Suicide?
In the news as I write this, there have already been several teen suicides in Denver alone. One last year was by a nine-year-old boy. He hanged himself after writing his mom a note with a blue heart in crayon that said, “I love you mom. I’m sorry I left you.” This was after he endured four days of intense bullying (and surely much more), after he told his classmates he was proud to be gay.
In Colorado, and elsewhere in the nation, instances of teen suicide is rising. In Colorado, between 2015 and 2017, there were 533 suicides by children and young adults ages 10 to 24. Overall in the state, 1,146 individuals took their own lives. Why are there so many? Experts say that suicide culminated in a lengthy time period of repeated stress and lasting depression. Without help, suicide can seem like the easiest way to escape the pain, and that once followed through, everyone else in their lives will also be lighter, without them. The lack of adequate mental health care, general kindness, accessibility to hurt others through social media, and forward thinking can leave teens wondering why not to kill themselves, instead of learning how to live a life they love.
How to Get Help to Avoid Teen Suicide
Don’t ignore the signs. It’s the first way to start your teen on a track of healthy living. If you notice that they start to become withdrawn and express apathy, don’t assume it’s just them “being a teen.” It could be much more dangerous. Never judge your teen. Keep the lines of communication open and suggest a teen counselor so that they can have someone confidential to talk to. Don’t insist on going to their sessions. Let them have that space to breathe and express themselves. Give them “mental health days” from school. If they are extremely stressed about going one day because of something embarrassing that happened the day before, give them the day off, I say. If it was an adult going through a stressful time, there would be no shame in calling in sick one day to recover. Give that option to your teen.
Listen to your teen. By listen, I mean observe too. What activities are they engaging in? Are they drawing a lot? Get them set up with an art class or take them to an art museum. Are they watching a lot of music videos? See if you can get them some voice or dance lessons. What do they love? Help them get to where they need to be to cultivate that talent. Parents often force their kids to do activities that they think are good for them, but this can only put them in awkward situations where their skills and interests aren’t met properly. It can squarely place them in the center of teasing or begin the path toward self criticism. Let your teen be themselves. Support whatever that looks like. Help them thrive, don’t put them in a box.
What Can Parents, Friends, Teachers and Counselors Do to Help?
I addressed it a little bit above, but truly, what we can all do, is extend kindness. Let’s remember that forgetting x, y, z or getting a bad grade is NOT the end of the world. Teen suicide however, actually is. Our reactions to the small stuff can impact our teens in a big way. Let’s all try to relax and remember that life is a journey and nothing, nothing, nothing is THAT important, except our happiness, self sufficiency, and self actualization. The rest is just a bonus (an education, a nice house, awards, etc.). As adults, we can try to reduce the pressure we put on our teens. They are putting quite enough on themselves assuredly already.
And, personally, seeing a counselor all the time once your child starts to get into adolescence is a really good idea. Showing your teen that mental health is part of their physical health and not just somewhere to turn when things are going wrong can help stop problems before they begin. Knowing that your teen has a weekly appointment with a counselor can give relief to everyone because the teen knows they have someone to vent to and only have to wait at most a few days. And, parents and counselors can feel relief too, knowing that regular check-in’s are helping to address their mental health during the tricky times of late elementary school, middle school and high school.
How to Cope When a Friend Commits Suicide
As we grow older, many of us know a friend or relative who has taken their own life. A friend of mine told me about her aunt, who upon her uncle’s cancer diagnosis, couldn’t handle the thought of being alone. She talked to a counselor, but unfortunately, the red flags were missed. Her aunt cooked her uncle a pork chop for dinner, then abruptly went upstairs and shot herself. Another suicide she experienced was her assistant in her managerial job. She suspected he might be gay as they worked in a beauty salon together, but could not have imagined getting a call a year later that he had hanged himself because of his self-perceived shame.
There’s almost nothing that can heal the pain of losing a loved one to suicide, but counseling is the first place to turn. Our grief doesn’t go away after the event. It is lifelong. We remember them on holidays, birthdays, and special occasions. Crumble when we find their handwriting on little notes around the house. Cry when we listen to theor voicemails we’ve saved, even years and years later. It’s simply devastating. And, what we need the most is to talk about it, cry about it, and feel like it’s okay to do so. Counseling, especially for teens, when they experience a friend or family member’s suicide, is the exact place to heal. Making sure to also eat well and get enough sunlight and exercise is also crucial to the grieving process.
So many people take their own lives following a suicide because they can’t heal from the pain. If you haven’t been seeing a counselor regularly for mental health maintenance, following a suicide of someone close, that appointment should be made right away. Your counselor will help guide you through the grief process and offer ways to cope as well as a safe place to cry, scream, and just wonder why, yet not alone, together. Support is crucial after a friend or family member commits suicide.
Teen Suicide is Hard on Counselors Too
As a teen counselor myself, losing someone I was offering therapy to would be completely devastating. Many counselors would feel like they have failed in some way. Maybe they would even consider quitting the profession. What I can tell you is that you are not responsible. Teen suicide is the culmination of years and years and years of conditioning to the point that the teen feels that is the only option. Usually, a counselor is only called in once the situation has gotten to a heightened level and there is nothing you can fix in a few sessions if the damage has been taking place over the child’s entire life. Get healing yourself and schedule a session with a counselor too. It’s important that you don’t blame yourself, when you were doing the very best that you could. My door is always open. ~ Katie
About Peek Counseling: Counseling for Teens
My name is Katie Bisbee-Peek and I am a counselor for teens (and fellow counselors counseling teens) in Denver. Through my own personal struggles with family members, and my professional experience with families and teens, I know this is a very, very heavy topic. In my practice, I use a lighthearted and genuine approach to help youths with depression, anxiety, and the overwhelm of simply growing up. If your teen is going through a hard time, now is the best moment to reach out.
And if you’re a counselor going through the loss of a client from teen suicide, I want you to know that you can heal, it’s not your fault, and that you did the best you could. My office is here for anyone seeking hope after a loved one’s suicide. I am here for you. Start with a complimentary consultation, just click here.
5280, Sanchez, Robert, “Why Did Jamel Myles Die?” January 2019.
Denver Post, Seaman, Jessica, “Teens are more open about talking about mental health and suicide. But they say adults are slow to catch up.” April 14, 2019.
Denver Post, Seaman, Jessica, “Little known about links between suicide and mass tragedies like Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland,” March 28. 2019.
Stanford Children’s Health, “Teen Suicide.”