'These Teenagers Feel That They Have No Options'
Is teen suicide a peculiarly American phenomenon?
It is a worldwide event, but only in the U.S. is it an epidemic. Although our overall mortality rates have decreased during the last 20 years, deaths have skyrocketed among our 15-to 24-year-olds. What accounts for that increase is suicide, up 136 percent, and homicide, up 164 percent.
Why do you think this is so?
More and more, violence is being accepted as a way of life in America. A lot of our youngsters are becoming numbed to violence without comprehending the irreversibility of death. Guns play a major role. They account for more suicides—62 percent—for 15-to 24-year-olds than all other methods combined. Having loaded guns around the house is an invitation to disaster. Guns do not cause suicide any more than drugs do, but they are the most effective means to that end.
Is there a typical suicidal teenager?
Researchers divide these adolescents into the attempters and the committers. The evidence indicates that each of these groups has very different characteristics.
How do they differ?
Ninety percent of attempters are female. Research indicates that this type is usually a firstborn child, unusually close to her mother and able to give help but unable to accept it herself. Her father is often absent physically and/ or psychologically, and if the parents are divorced, she blames herself for the split and views herself as being abandoned.
Who is the typical suicide?
Three out of four adolescents who commit suicide are boys. Such a boy is often a younger child who tends to keep things inside. He has learned that he has to solve his problems on his own and is unable to seek help. A loner, he may be from any social class—a poor or an affluent home where he feels high pressure to achieve. In either case, he tries to please his parents but feels he is not recognized and appreciated for who and what he is.
What other pressures push these kids to desperate measures?
Family violence and our increased mobility and rootlessness are contributing factors. We move from one community to the next in pursuit of upward mobility. Along the way we give our children more things but less of ourselves and less of a sense of belonging and tradition. As for triggering incidents, they can be anything from an argument at home, a breakup of a relationship or an event—not making a team, not getting a date, not passing an exam—that is perceived as an insurmountable failure or embarrassment.
Is divorce a factor?
Not necessarily. Nor are working mothers, although both are continually blamed. What is important is that both parents be involved with their children, whether they are divorced or together. The real problem is, these teenagers feel that they have no options.
Why do these kids feel so hopeless?
They suffer from a kind of tunnel vision. They are looking down a long, dark tunnel, and all they see is darkness. They don't know that there is light outside and at the end of the tunnel. They don't know where in the tunnel they are; they think it goes on forever.
What are the signs of a potential suicide that parents, teachers and friends should look for?
They should be familiar with the suicide warning signs (see page 87). I don't want anyone to think, however, that if his child doesn't fit these characteristics he's out of danger. These are generalizations. I'd prefer that someone overreact than ignore a problem. You will never give a kid the idea of committing suicide by talking about it. In fact, just knowing someone is available and interested may be the factor that will save his life.
What should someone say to teenagers who talk of committing suicide?
He should tell them what I tell my patients: I'll do my best to be there for them, but I cannot be there 24 hours a day, and if they are hell-bent on killing themselves, I probably cannot stop them. I also tell my patients that if I feel they are in danger of taking their lives, I will not keep quiet. Kids need to know that they are not doing their friends a service by keeping silent. They must see that, by giving these clues, the friend is asking for help.
What should parents do if their child is a potential suicide risk ?
Get help. Find a child psychologist or psychiatrist you can trust and feel comfortable talking to, someone warm and willing to get involved. Contact your doctor, your pediatrician, your child's teacher, a local hospital for references. Ask friends. There are also clinics and suicide-prevention crisis agencies. School counselors and ministers are fine too. It doesn't have to be a professional.
What if the child won't cooperate?
Then everybody should go for help. Family therapy is the ideal method of treatment anyway. Then the adolescent isn't identified as the patient. Everyone gets some support, and concerns and grievances are aired while all members of the family work out a way to live more comfortably and effectively together.
Are siblings of a suicide at greater risk themselves?
That research hasn't really been done. There is no evidence of a genetic link to suicide, but children are very suggestible and often identify with a lost loved one. They also often feel that the wrong child has died. Suicide becomes a viable option because it's been seen before.
How can parents lower the risk?
Don't exclude surviving children, even young ones, from the mourning process or from therapeutic intervention. Otherwise these kids will have no outlet for their grief and no way to receive support.
Is the divorce rate higher among parents of teenage suicides?
Again, the research isn't there. The figure nationally is nearly 50 percent for all couples, and I wouldn't be surprised if it were higher for parents of suicides. It must be horrible. On the other hand, it may bring a couple closer, particularly if there are other children.
What steps would you like to see taken immediately to help prevent suicide?
Education is our most valuable tool. I would like to see groups of experts go into school systems and talk to kids, parents and teachers. I would also like to see schools set up programs not only on suicide prevention but on how to deal with stress and depression as well, since these are components of suicide and yet adolescents may not express them in the same way adults do.
What can be done on a national level?
We need a presidential task force on youth suicide to get state legislators to recognize the need for education on a state level. Right now states are trying to set up their own task forces. That's ineffective. They shouldn't have to go out and learn the field. The American Association of Suicidology has decided to devote the next five years to promoting legislation for coordinated programs and to developing the material to disseminate to the schools.
Are the media a help or a hindrance?
My feeling is that the media can be enormously beneficial, informing kids about the realities of the situation and what their options are. For example, after eight teenagers killed themselves in Piano, Texas last year, the police department made a film about what actually happens when somebody dies—how they go through a cold autopsy and are buried, and how the notoriety dies down and their families are left with the pain. What upsets me is when the media or school systems sensationalize or romanticize the issue. Then they add to the problem.
How do schools do this?
Sometimes, when an adolescent commits suicide, the school declares a holiday in that child's honor, allows everyone to go to the funeral and calls a period of mourning for a day or two. That adolescent—who may have been suffering because he felt lost and isolated—suddenly becomes a hero in the eyes of others. From this, other kids learn that if they feel lost, one way they can achieve an identity is through death.