“He cried for hours… he didn’t want to live.”
“Every night is endless. I just keep telling myself… keep him alive.”
“I never stop watching. I can never relax.”
“I hope we don’t run out of time… I’m so scared.”
These are the heart-wrenching and desperate words of parents living with children who are suicidal. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. And yet, deep down inside, many parents feel that the nationwide issue of teen suicide doesn’t offer any real relevance to them, that something like that could never happen in their family or, worse yet, they speak the overconfident words some parents later come to regret, “my child would never do that.”
While every parent would like to believe that their child isn’t capable of suicide, the rising increase in teen suicide has spawned heightened awareness and the harsh reality that suicide can happen to any child in any family.
In many cases, however, the warning signs often associated with teen suicide go unrecognized and the silent screams of struggling children are left unheard until it’s too late.
How are parents expected to deal with this reality and what steps can they take to prevent their child from taking his or her own life?
According to The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, “Once you acknowledge that suicide is as much a risk factor for your child as not wearing a seatbelt while driving, using alcohol or drugs, or engaging in risky sexual behavior, you’ve taken the first step in prevention.”
With teen suicide rates increasing at an alarming rate, many experts feel that we’re in a race against the clock to raise awareness and implement viable measures to help teens and their families who are struggling.
Teen Suicide Rates are Climbing Steadily
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2007 and 2015 suicide rates steadily climbed. During that time, suicide rates rose more than 30 percent among teen boys and they doubled among teen girls hitting an all-time 40-year record high. The CDC also reports that 1 in 5 American children ages 3 through 17 – nearly 15 million – have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder in a given year. Only 20 percent of these children are ever diagnosed and receive treatment.
Other statistics are equally as alarming.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age youth ages 18-24.
- More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.
- Each day in our nation, there are on average more than 3,470 attempts of suicide by young people grades 9-12.
- Four out of five teens who attempt suicide gave clear warning signs.
- 17% of high school students admit to thinking about suicide and nearly 8% acknowledge actually making an attempt.
- Each year, approximately 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 are treated in hospital emergency rooms across the U.S. for self-inflicted injuries.
These statistics offer further proof that teenagers in our society today are an increasingly vulnerable group when it comes to mental health. With teen depression rates on the rise and the stigma of asking for help preventing parents and teens from seeking the medical help they need, experts fear the situation may get worse before it gets better.
According to Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, “People often think that teens can’t get depressed or anxious, but they can. People also often think that it is ‘just normal teen angst.’ We need to make it okay to talk about things that are causing emotional pain and let people know that it is real, but it can get better. Dying by suicide shouldn’t be an option, and yet young people often feel like it’s their only option.”
What Is Depression?
According to Mayo Clinic, depression is a mood disorder, also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, that causes a persistent feeling of sadness or loss of interest. It can affect how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. More than simply “the blues,” depression isn’t a weakness you can simply “snap out of.” It can drastically impact your ability to manage normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes make you feel as though life isn’t worth living.
Quite often depression results from a combination of biological, psychological, and social sources of distress. Increasingly, research is suggesting that these factors may cause changes in brain function, including altered activity of certain neural circuits in the brain.
With more teens experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, many experts believe that America’s youth are in the midst of an acute health crisis. In fact, one study revealed that in 2015 an estimated three million teenagers in America between the ages of 12 and 17 experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last 12 months. A major depressive episode is considered symptoms of depression, such as a loss of interest in usual activities, lack of energy and hopelessness, accompanied by a depressed mood for a period of two weeks or more.
Is My Child Normal, Just Sad or Clinically Depressed?
Sometimes teen behavior can be confusing to parents making it all too difficult to determine if their child is experiencing normal teen mood swings, the temporary blues or suffering from clinical depression, especially since depression can easily be mistaken for typical teen behavior. In the midst of all the developmental and emotional changes teens are going through during puberty, it’s also easy to dismiss changes in their personality or appearance thinking that these changes too are simply a byproduct of puberty. But, what if it’s something more?
What if your child is experiencing feelings of depression, unhappiness, isolation or questions whether their life matters?
No matter how tuned in parents are to their child, it can be extremely difficult to peel back the emotional layers to get to the root of what their child is actually feeling, especially considering that teens often have difficulty expressing their emotions.
How are parents able to distinguish between normal teen “growing pains” and depression?
Experts say better understanding begins with education and knowing what to look for. Some of the more common symptoms associated with clinical depression that can help a parent differentiate whether their child is clinically depressed or simply experiencing the temporary blues are:
- Feelings of sadness or having a depressed mood for more than two weeks
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite — weight loss or weight gain unrelated to dieting
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
In most cases, in order for someone to be diagnosed with depression, they must exhibit symptoms that last at least two weeks. It’s also important to note that certain medical conditions such as thyroid problems, a brain tumor or vitamin deficiency, can mimic symptoms of depression which is why it’s important to seek medical attention to rule out medical causes.
Nearly everyone, including teenagers, has experienced some form of sadness in their lives. It’s simply part of life. Whether these feelings of sadness correlate directly to clinical depression or mental illness is a question only a mental health professional can answer. However, most mental illness diagnoses boil down to a few important considerations including how long your child has been experiencing the symptoms of depression, how intense the symptoms are, how they are impacting your child’s ability to function personally, socially, and academically, and how appropriate their feelings of depression are to the situation in their lives.
The Link Between Anxiety, Depression, and Suicide
When it comes to teens in America, severe anxiety is becoming more crippling with each passing year. Anxiety is now the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of adolescents according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And, according to data from the American College Health Association’s 2016 survey, over the last decade, anxiety has surpassed depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. Sixty-two percent of undergraduate students in the survey reported “overwhelming anxiety,” a significant increase from 50 percent in 2011.
With the rate of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers doubling over the past decade, many experts are diving into the inextricable link between anxiety, depression, and suicide. However, the connection is a complicated one. Not every person diagnosed with anxiety or depression is at risk of committing suicide. However, statistics have shown that individuals diagnosed with anxiety and depression are considered at a higher risk of suicide.
According to Mark Pollack, MD, ADAA Past President and Grainger Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, “More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable illness such as clinical depression, and often in combination with anxiety, substance use disorders or other treatable mental disorders.”
“Triggers” to Depression or Suicidal Thoughts
Pinpointing what may be causing your child’s depression can be difficult; however, a number of things are often linked to its development. Research has shown that depression typically results from a combination of recent events and other long-term or personal factors, rather than one specific event or issue.
The factors that may serve as “triggers” to depression or suicidal thoughts include:
- A family history of suicide and/or suicide attempts
- Exposure to sexual, physical abuse or violence
- Being a victim of bullying or cyber-bullying
- Profound loss or rejection such as loss of a loved one or a break-up of a boyfriend or girlfriend
- Public humiliation at school or with friends
- Chronic medical condition
- Drugs or alcohol use
- Having access to weapons
In addition to these triggers, there is a growing dark side to the health and well-being of teens who are becoming more hyperfocused on academic success which may account for the jump in teen suicides in the fall when school is back in session.
With 44 percent of kids today reporting being worried about doing well in school, more teens today are experiencing anxiety and having feelings of extreme stress due to a range of academic pressure derived from a need for perfection, concern over grades, a heavy class load, parental pressure and extracurricular activities.
According to Psychology Today, the indirect effects of stress are often what causes depression to take hold. When people experience chronic stress and lack of sleep, they often stop doing some of the healthy coping mechanisms that keep their mood on track.
Other emerging research is shedding light on the link between teen depression and suicide and screen time spent on cell phones and social media. One researcher found that teens who spend five or more hours per day on their devices are 71 percent more likely to have one risk factor for suicide. And that’s regardless of the content consumed. Whether teens are watching funny animal videos or looking at something more serious, the amount of screen time — not the specific content — goes hand in hand with higher instances of depression.
When to Worry: Be on the Lookout for Striking Changes in Behavior
It’s possible that your child is just having a bad week, but if the anxiety or sadness has been plaguing them for two weeks or more, the situation deserves your attention.
Teenagers, especially, are often too embarrassed and avoid sharing their anxiety or sadness with anyone thinking that others, including their parents, may view it as a sign of weakness or simply melodramatic behavior.
And, because four out of five teens who attempt suicide give clear warning signs either verbally or behaviorally, it’s important to pay close attention not only to what your child is saying, but what they aren’t saying. A depressed teenager may not verbalize their feelings, but exhibit changes in their behavior or actions oftentimes seeking refuge alone, when secretly they’re struggling.
Changes such as pulling away from family and friends, being agitated or irritable, disengaging from activities they once enjoyed, refusing to go to school or changes in grades, are all red flags that might indicate your child is depressed. Other red flags include suddenly becoming unmotivated, complaining of headaches, stomach aches or other issues that don’t respond to treatment, expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, using drugs or alcohol to cope with problems, or becoming more aggressive, disruptive or impulsive.
If you notice changes in your child that may indicate that they’re experiencing anxiety or depression, don’t take it lightly. Open the door of communication, ask questions and seek professional help. Above all, listen to your child calmly and give them the much-needed undivided attention and help they need.
Let your child know that they aren’t alone and that everyone feels down or depressed from time to time. Rather than minimizing or shrugging off their feelings, validate their feelings by letting them know that you care and that you’re willing to help.
The Warning Signs of Suicide: 13 Red Flags
Recognizing the warning signs associated with suicide is the first step in preventing your child from taking his or her own life. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics, here are 13 red flags that may indicate that your child is wrestling with thoughts of suicide:
- Marked changes in behavior such as a typically easygoing child becoming far more rebellious and difficult to communicate with or sudden changes in hygiene or sleep habits
- Uncharacteristic changes in appearance such as a sudden change in how your child dresses
- Sudden drastic change in academic performance
- Withdrawing from friends, family and regular activities
- Frequent complaints often associated with emotional distress including headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, etc.
- Expressing severe emotional pain or experiencing frequent sadness
- Making open suicidal comments to friends, family, and acquaintances including, “I wish I was dead,” “I won’t be a burden to you much longer,” or “It will all be over soon.” (Important Note: Even if your child talks about suicide jokingly, always take their comments seriously)
- Talking to friends, family, co-workers, etc., or posting on social media about feeling hopeless or trapped, that death is easier than living, feeling that they are a burden to others or specific comments about committing suicide
- Giving away personal, oftentimes prized, possessions
- Visiting or calling people to “say goodbye”
- Developing a preoccupation with death or dying
- Looking for or researching methods to die including medications, guns, sharp objects, etc.
- Suddenly becoming very cheerful or peaceful after a long bout with depression
Depression is Nothing to Be Feared or Ashamed Of
The challenge parents face today is both overwhelming and exhausting. Not knowing what signs to look for and not having any idea where to turn when they suspect a problem is leaving many parents feeling isolated and hopeless.
However, experts agree that parents play a critical role in changing the conversation as it relates to their teens’ mental health. First and foremost, parents and teens alike need to embrace the idea that depression is nothing to be feared, embarrassed about or ashamed of and that it should be openly discussed much like we discuss physical ailments.
Additionally, experts agree that parents need to follow their instincts if they suspect their child is suffering. After all, you’re the parent. You know your child better than anyone and you may have instincts that are telling you that what your child is going through isn’t simply a “phase.” If you recognize that your child is suffering, it’s important that you reach out to a mental health professional who can conduct a thorough evaluation and, if necessary, establish a treatment plan.
The most important thing to remember is that depression is treatable. In fact, depression is among the most treatable of mental disorders.
Our society must begin to take note of the staggering statistics, face the harsh realization that teens in our society are under intense pressure and take important steps to alter the course of fate for some teens. We need to strive to become more accepting, attuned and proactive as it relates to teen anxiety, depression, and suicide, and reinforce the idea that there is treatment, there is hope and, with greater public awareness, there are brighter days ahead.
Where Can I Go if I Feel My Child Needs Help?
If you’re struggling with where to turn to find help for your child, here are few resources available on The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide website:
- Not My Kid Video
- Learn the Facts About Suicide
- Talking to Your Kids About Suicide
- I’m Worried About My Child. Where Do I Start?
- Frequently Asked Questions and Questions to Ask About a Referral for Mental Health Services
- Mental Health and Teens: Watch for Danger Signs
- How to Effectively Talk to Your Child About Depression
Where Can I Call If I’m in a Crisis?
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress 24/7, prevention and crisis resources, and best practices for professionals.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Be the One to Make a Difference in ANY Child’s Life
We’re all in a position to help. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to make a difference in a child’s life who may be struggling. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s #BeThe1To offers guidelines for talking with someone who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts. For more information, visit their site. 5 Action Steps for Communicating with Someone Who May Be Suicidal
Raising Teens Today: We Care…
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Sources for this article include: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Pediatrics, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Parent Resource Program, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Healthychildren.org., American College Health Association and Web MD.