What we need to know about teen suicide

Parents need to find a way to take the shame out of suicide, should the topic come up.

Teen depression (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Teen depression
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
This column has dealt with some challenging issues, but none are as scary as the thought that our children might take their own lives.
As parents, we try to do whatever we can to assure our children that they are loved and valued. We worry about choices they make in regard to substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors or driving, and we try to prepare them to handle these choices.
But there is one choice that is almost never discussed, and for which there has been little or no preparation. When it comes to suicide, most parents do not even consider that their child could do such a thing.
The issue of suicide, and teen suicide in particular, is increasingly discussed in the American, European and Israeli press.
A recent Israeli documentary film also illustrates this shift in awareness. Against Your Will focuses on parents from Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv who lost two sons to suicide and stresses the importance of transparency.
Their story highlights their frustration with the secrecy that is especially common in traditional communities, since Judaism, like other religions, regards suicide as a sin against God.
Israel has begun a three-year national program on the subject of suicide prevention, established by the Health Ministry. Clearly, the first step toward prevention is bringing the issue out into the open.
Studies show that certain populations are more vulnerable to suicide than others, in particular new immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia as well as members of the LGBT community in Israel, as in America. Studies also reveal that suicide is the second- leading cause of death in the 14-24 age group, both in Israel and the US. Official statistics from the IDF reveal that more soldiers die by suicide than by operational activities. Attempted suicide rates for teens are well over 6,000 a year.
However, most researchers agree that suicide statistics in all categories are significantly underreported.
While more girls than boys attempt suicide, boys have a higher fatality rate. These differences in gender raise the issue of whether some suicide attempts are actually a cry for help rather than an intent to die. Compared to adults, teens have a low rate of “completed” suicide, which may suggest a similar lack of intent.
So what do we need to know as parents? First of all, suicide is frequently related to severe depression, anxiety or other forms of mental illness.
Second, suicide is rarely sudden and unpredictable.
Red flags include withdrawal from friends, family and regular activities, violent and rebellious behaviors, running away, substance abuse, unusual neglect of personal appearance, marked personality or mood change, complaints about physical pains and difficulty accepting positive feedback.
Teens may even complain about being bad or worthless, or give away cherished personal possessions.
Sometimes a teen will become mysteriously cheerful after a long depressed episode. A teen might even come right out with a statement like “I won’t be a problem for you any longer.” We must be vigilant in listening to them.
But how do we know if it is only a fleeting emotion, or if they are actually planning to take their own lives? There is the very real issue of right to privacy. At what point do we feel it is justified to invade their social media or personal documents and diaries? After many a teen suicide, parents find diaries that talk explicitly to the issue of wanting to die. If only they had known. Unfortunately, most teens are more likely to share with friends than with parents. So it is also important to keep in the loop with your child’s peers.
Mainly, parents need to find a way to take the shame out of suicide, should the topic come up.
Studies report that thinking about suicide (called suicide ideation) during the difficult teen years is surprisingly common. If a child does share his concern with the topic, we must never give the message that the topic is taboo. This will only fan the fires of his distress and alienation.
The teen years are hormonal, dramatic and sometimes overwhelming. Because it is sometimes difficult to discern normal teen angst from something more, we have to be prepared to engage professional help if necessary. But this is also no easy matter.
Some professionals are also uncomfortable discussing suicide, a strategy that appears to be very unwise, from the perspective of anthropologist Judith Posner.
In her recent article “Breaking the Silence about Jewish Suicide” (Forward, August 29), Posner reflects on her son’s suicide and the stigma that surrounds suicide and “suicide survivors” – the close friends and family left behind. The very term “survivor” indicates the traumatic affect of a death by suicide.
One survivor parent says: “Kids who commit suicide suffer great internal pain and want to end it. It could begin by dropping out of school, running away, drinking, using drugs or a combination of all of these. The cycle is downward until the final act....
“I have spoken with many people who have lost their children to suicide. Many of the kids were extremely sensitive and generous. They suffered from a world that they perceived as unfair. Many had a form of mental illness and most had self-esteem issues that led to self-medication with alcohol and drugs.
“My daughter committed suicide at age 26. I believe that her self-esteem issues started because she had learning disabilities. Her frustration with lack of success in school caused her to act out. She was viewed as a troublemaker and was often kicked out of class.
“She started to hang out with a bad crowd that drank, used drugs and stayed out late. I believe that she avoided her siblings and me, so as not to cause us the pain of seeing her decline....
“My advice: Constantly tell your child that you love them. Talk about your own foibles, fears and problems. Let them know that you are also imperfect… just human.”
The above advice is so very important. It helps to take “shame” out of the subject. Suicide is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a single variable like a recent breakup or a failing grade.
Research has even demonstrated a genetic component to suicide.
From another survivor mother: “Parents and society tend to be in denial regarding suicide. I believe that mental health awareness with proper medical care (drugs and/or therapy) will save lives.
“My son suffered from sadness and anxiety starting at age 14. The hardest part of having my child die by suicide was watching him suffer this painful illness quietly.
“My sweet son appeared to have life under control; he was a graduate student, had a girlfriend, and supported himself financially. He was living in another state, and when this all changed we were unaware. We didn’t know that he had quit school, was self-medicating, and wasn’t leaving his apartment or caring for his physical appearance.
“Within five years he had made two suicide attempts and had gone off of his medication. He was receiving treatment, and we thought he was getting better. We misread his signs.
“Death by depression is not so dissimilar to any other illness such as cancer, and should be treated in a dignified way.”
The teen/young-adult years are troubling, to be sure. So, as parents, we must stay alert to our children’s emotional temperatures and be prepared to remind them of the famous mantra: Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. 
Tracey Shipley is a teen and young-adult counselor specializing in addictions and working with youth and their parents for over 25 years. She is also the founder of the Sobar alcohol-free live music bar project for teens and young adults. jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com, www.jerusalemteencounseling.net
Judith Posner and other survivors are interested in opening an English-speaking support group for parents/ survivors of suicide; it will be self-facilitated for the purpose of sharing experiences and resources. Contact them at: Cheryl 053-336-2478 or cgoldlc@gmail.com; Judy (02) 623-6892 or judep@netvision.net.il