Parenting Youth in a World of Rising Suicide Rates
“KNOW THE SIGNS! KNOW THE SIGNS!” Doctors, psychologists, and counselors have been emphasizing this for many years. As a dedicated psychology major at one of the nation’s best universities, you can bet I knew the signs. I knew all the signs of a suicidal person. But knowing the signs didn’t save my then 20-year-old brother’s life. The Know the Signs campaign didn’t help. In fact, it hurt by adding to my festering guilt. Even my dad blamed me for not having warned him that my brother was suicidal. I was supposed to know, he said, because of my chosen field.
As a result, I kept quiet about my brother’s death by suicide – a quiet that lasted for two decades. I was ashamed of so much: his mental illness and diagnosis (“paranoid schizophrenia”), our strained relationship and how badly I treated him, his choice to die the way he did, my ongoing depression.
I’m writing this now as a mental health advocate. I’ve openly shared my story of suicide-related loss with hundreds, maybe even thousands of people, over the past five years. Here are a few important things, focused on the needs of teenagers that I learned along the way:
It’s impossible to make decisions for someone else – as much as we’d like to. Teens are especially impulsive and emotional. We can’t fix that. We also can’t cure mental illness, because there is no known cure. When our children are in desperate pain, we cannot and should not be expected to remain calm and, beyond this, take their pain away. Nor can we make decisions for them about what they will do about it.
So, to expect to be able to (or to be expected by others) to singlehandedly save someone’s life, especially the life of one’s own child, is not reasonable or fair. This challenge belongs to the entire community and world at large. Ultimately, though, the challenge is theirs and theirs alone. All we can do is positively influence them in the ways described below.
First, let me clarify that knowing the signs of suicidal tendencies can and has saved lives. But there are so many factors involved, making suicide risk extremely complicated.
Young people are particularly impulsive, and they tend to believe that darkness is permanent. If they do have immediate access to fatal resources (e.g., guns, alcohol, pills), the risk of suicide is much higher.
Often, a suicidal person (especially an adolescent) feels ambivalent about dying. They simply want the pain to end. One thing, and only one thing is needed to both stop their pain and to keep them alive: love and care. It’s that fragile. They simply need to know that the world isn’t against them and that they’re not alone. Thus, it’s not about memorizing a list of symptoms. It’s about being open-hearted. That’s how we can save lives.
Parents, your job is the hardest, most important job in the world. To diminish the unthinkable possibility of your child becoming a suicide statistic, please:
Keep open lines of communication. Know how they spend their time, who they spend their time with, and their Internet activity. Talk with their teachers, their friends’ parents, and others in their/your circles. You need not spy. Simply ask. Invite their friends over. Offer to transport them to, or to chaperone, their activities. Ask them “How are you?” every day, and listen with full acceptance. Know that when they are their most rejecting selves, what they need most is to hear “I love you. It’s okay. I’m here for you.” It’s amazing how far this message will go to cause them to drop their defenses and express themselves more honestly.
Use the word “suicide.” It’s scary to discuss suicide, but they know the word and its implications, especially if they’ve lost friends and/or other loved ones to suicide. It’s a myth that using the word plants an idea in someone’s head. The opposite happens: they learn that you’re determined to be their main source of support through their greatest struggles. You’ll increase the chance that they’ll share their despair with you when they need to most. Tell them that many adolescents (and people of all ages) struggle with desperate feelings at times. Ask if they have a plan to hurt or kill themselves.
Limit or eliminate your child’s/teen’s access to dangerous objects (guns, pills, alcohol, knives or sharp items, etc.) Locks are cheap and easy to use.
Do not leave them alone. If you think your child is or might be at risk of suicide, don’t leave them alone. Isolation is by far the most dangerous factor to someone’s risk of suicide. When you can’t be with them, find someone who can be. If this doesn’t work, have phone-call check-ins with them. Police officers will make “mental health checks” when asked to do so. Don’t hesitate to contact 911 when needed. There are also crisis centers, outpatient, and inpatient treatment facilities throughout the country. Help is available.
Here are other important contacts:
- Text line for youth, the AlexProject.org, text LISTEN to 741741
- National Suicide Lifeline, (800) 273-8255 or (800) 273-TALK
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention/AFSP; afsp.org, (800) 333-2377 or (800) 333-AFSP. (800) 333-AFSP.
Self-care is crucial. Don’t expect your children to meet your needs. As parents, you are their most important resource and by far the greatest influence in their lives. Build your own safety net of friends, family, and helping professionals. You can only be a positive role model for your children if you’re taking care of yourselves.
None of this is easy, but none of us is alone. As a community, we can slow the rise of youth suicide through one factor: loving kindness. Let’s replace “Know the signs” with the message: “SAY ‘I LOVE YOU.’ SHOW YOU CARE.” With this notion we can and will turn things around for the world’s youth— our most precious resource.
Robyn Alana Engel, LCSW
Former Chair, Out of the Darkness for Suicide Prevention
Former Board member, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention