Teen Suicide; Helping our Surviving Children

I was recently tasked to provide psycho-educational support to a high school that experienced a teen suicide. Three months prior, as a parent with a high school teenager, my community experienced a tragic teen suicide. Most of us have been touched by teen suicide in one way or another and we all grieve when children in our communities decide to take their life.  Our children’s sense of security can be threatened when they lose a close friend or acquaintance so abruptly and to suicide. The distress reaction in schools often runs high with so many kids fearful and grieving together.  Administrators seeking out my help reported a significant increase in student hospitalizations following the suicide in their school.

Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for children and young adults between the ages of 10-24 years old. There are an estimated 25 attempts for every one completed suicide. Risk dramatically increases when there are firearms in the home. Overdose, using over the counter prescription and nonprescription medicine is a common method for attempting and completing suicide. Teen girls think about and attempt suicide twice as often as boys. They tend to overdose on drugs and cut themselves. Teen boys die by suicide four times more often than girls. They are prone to use more dangerous methods such as firearms, hanging and jumping from heights.

Untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide among teenagers. Depression is fairly common in adults and kids. Twenty percent of teens will experience depression symptoms before they reach adulthood. Depression effects teens regardless of gender, social background, income level, or other achievements. Depression can make a teenager as much as 12 times more likely to attempt suicide; yet less than 33 percent of teens with depression get help despite an 80 percent treatment success rate with assistance from a doctor or therapist. Common risk factors for teen depression are:

  • Family history of depression; between 20 to 50 percent of teens with depression have a family member who suffers from depression or another mental health disorder
  • Experiencing trauma, abuse, or long term illness or disability
  • Being bullied
  • Previous episodes of depression
  • GLBTQ children that get harassed by other kids in school for sexual orientation
  • When a friend commits suicide
  • Addiction to drugs or alcohol

If you believe your child is at risk or currently suffering from depression it is important to seek out professional help. Signs and symptoms to look for are as follows:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, irritability or tension
  • Loss of interest in usual activities or hobbies
  • A change in appetite with a significant weight loss or gain
  • A change in sleeping patterns such as difficulty sleeping, early morning awakening, or sleeping too much
  • Restlessness or feeling slowed down
  • Decreased ability to make decisions or concentrate
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, of guilt
  • Thoughts of suicide or death.

Generally speaking, the impact following a suicide depends on how close our children were to the child who died, or whether they were exposed to the trauma of witnessing distressing scenes. Feelings of guilt and anger are particularly pertinent to survivors. Kids may feel guilty for things they said or didn’t say to their classmate who passed. As parents, it is important to assure them that it was not their fault, rather, a decision made by someone who was not feeling well.

Parents, if you are struggling, it is important to get help for yourself so that you are in a place to support your children. Talking to adults and keeping in touch with other parents is helpful. You may want to seek out counseling support if you find yourself struggling and having a hard time helping your children.

Multiple family members can be affected including your teenager’s younger siblings. Here are some tips for supporting younger children in the household:

  • Tell the bare truth first with no detail, e.g. “one of Matthew’s friends died today and we all feel sad.”
  • Stick to your daily routines. Routine is very reassuring for young children.
  • Answer questions as your child asks them as simply as possible. They need questions answered before they can move on.
  • Answer honestly. If they found that you have not answered their questions honestly, it can damage their trust and confidence in you.
  • Do not expose them to discussions with adults and older children. The questions they ask spontaneously indicate what they are ready to deal with themselves.
  • If they have a hard time with language or verbalization, allow them to draw or play out their understanding of the event.

Tips for supporting your older children to consider are:

  • It is OK parents, to express feelings around them if they are not out of control.
  • Your child may need to talk a lot to you about the details of the incident itself. Keep the door open for them to share and give them some space if they need it.
  • If they witnessed the death or know intimately someone who witnessed the death, this in itself is traumatic and they may require receiving professional help.
  • While it is important that your teenager talks about the death and their feelings about it, it is also important to protect the younger children from having it dominate family life.
  • Try to arrange individual time with your older child on a regular basis. Create opportunities to talk or to just be together.
  • Sometimes teenagers talk more to their friends than their parents.
  • Your question as to how they are feeling may bring anger as a response.
  • Make sure that your teenagers know that they are not responsible for what the person who was not feeling well did.
  • Encourage your teenager to go to the funeral or take part in any rituals to mark the life and death of the young person. Closure can be very healing.

To all affected by the loss of a child, friend, classmate, or community member; it is important to allow yourself time and ritual to grieve. Here are some important points to know about grief.

  • There are no right or wrong ways to experience grief.
  • There is no secret method that will take grief away instantly.
  • There are no rules to grief; everyone grieves differently.
  • There is no time table for grief.
  • Grief becomes easier to heal from as time passes.
  • Counseling may help you through the grief process.
  • Take all of the time and space you need to grieve in your own way for as long as it takes.

As painful as it is to talk about or face when our community loses a child to suicide, it is important that we talk about it and support each other through our grief for the sake of healing.

See the links below for more information and support on teen depression and suicide: