Youth Suicide – Let’s Give Them Hope

Youth Suicide - Let's Give Them Hope

I just can’t take it anymore. The voices are getting stronger, and I find that I can’t pull myself away. It’s getting too hard, and I don’t want to live. Please help me.” Sitting across from me, she speaks those words. Desperation, fear and sadness mix with the tears running down her face. I can’t help but notice her hands; they shake and she tries to control them. It’s the only thing she feels like she can still control.

She settles herself enough to answer a few questions—the questions I have to ask as a school counselor, the ones I hate asking. There are usually three that I start with. Sometimes it’s easier just to go for it; they know what’s coming.

“Are you thinking about hurting yourself—about killing yourself?”

“Do you have a plan?”

“Do you have means to do it?”

For some reason, the last one is the hardest. I have been asking those questions for 15 years, and the answer to the third question feels so final. If they are confident enough in their plan to have a means to carry it out, we are really close to losing them.

On any given day, this conversation is taking place. It may be happening in a counselor’s office, a classroom, with a therapist, pastor or friend. We are lucky if it is taking place—that means there is hope. It’s the ones who don’t talk about it that we lose, those who have meticulously answered all three of those questions on their own. We lost them before they even left us.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 42,773 suicides reported in 2014, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. In that year, someone in the United States died by suicide every 12.3 minutes on average.

There is a direct correlation between depression and teen suicide. The CDC reports that for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. It results in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year. The top three methods used in suicides of young people include firearm (45 percent), suffocation (40 percent) and poisoning (8 percent).

Death from suicide is only part of the problem. More young people survive attempts than actually die. A nationwide survey of youth in grades 9 to 12 in public and private schools in the United States found that 16 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13 percent reported creating a plan, and 8 percent reported trying to take their own life in the previous year.

There was one morning in particular that I remember the most. It was winter, so the faint sign of light in my office was coming from a small lamp. I had just arrived at work and saw the shadow of someone sitting in one of my chairs. I wasn’t expecting anyone this early, so I found myself a bit apprehensive about what to expect.

Sitting in the dark was the one student I worried about the most. He was the one who I thought about when I went home at night—wondering if I would see him the next day. His head was down, and his hands were trembling. Tears escaped his eyes as he looked up at me. His voice was quiet, but serious as he spoke to me: “I almost did it last night.”

I found myself wanting to say something, to start asking the questions and going through my list of what to do, but I stopped and just listened.

[irp posts=”133″ name=”Talking to Your Teen About Mental Health and Depression (Without Saying ‘Mental’ or ‘Depression’)”]

“I was sitting in my room with the gun. It was loaded. I had it in my mouth and my finger on the trigger and then I heard it—my mom. She had just come home and called out my name. I stopped.”

Even writing this now, so many years later, I ache for him. His pain, desperation, isolation, hopelessness and helplessness was too much. Killing himself was the only option he felt he had. I always think about the interruption that night. His mom calling out his name—that defining moment in her life. The moment that saved his life.

Time

Time is what we talk about with youth. Many of them report an urge to kill themselves that sometimes lasts a short time. If they can get through it, they do not complete suicide. If they do not have access to end their life, they wake up the next day. If someone happens to interrupt them, they can get help before they feel the urge again. If they have a lifeline—someone to reach out to—we see them at school.

There is no empty chair in a classroom.

Trust

Identifying one person they can go to, one person they can trust to be vulnerable with, to open up and share their thoughts with—this is what we desperately hope for in the fight to save their life.

Connections

Human connection is a powerful thing. When it seems that there is no one who understands, a hand reaching out is sometimes the one thing that begins the journey toward seeking help.

I’m not sure if I have the answer for how to end this. I don’t even know if we will ever celebrate a decline in youth suicides. It seems as though the numbers are staggering. Any suicide is one too many.

What I do know is that our kids need us. They need to see hope in our eyes and feel heard and accepted when they come to us. We need to help them understand that they are not alone in a world that feels so lonely.

We need to tell them to keep holding on.

There is help.

There is hope.

They are not alone.

This is not how their story has to end.


Sara LindbergAbout the Author: Sara Lindberg
Sara Lindberg is a 41-year-old wife, mother, and full-time secondary school counselor. Combining her 20-plus years’ experience in the fitness and counseling fields, she has found her passion in inspiring other women to be the best version of themselves. When she is not running, working with teenagers, or driving her own kids crazy, she manages a Facebook page called FitMom. Sara has a B.S. in exercise science and a M.Ed. in counseling. She does not consider herself a writer, just a woman with a lot of random thoughts and access to a computer. She gains inspiration for her writing from her 6-year-old son, Cooper, and 8-year-old daughter, Hanna.

7 Comments

Carol

My son 20 years old has been suffering from anxiet. He moved in with his dad and new step mom. they were up north and my son had his sister (same dad) stop over as he was in the middle of a anxiety episode. His dad told him not to have anyone over. When hid dad came home he woke my son up and told him to get out and take all his stuff cause he lied and disobeyed and had his sister over. She was there for an hour. He called me from his car with all his clothes piled in back seat. He is in 2nd year of college getting good grades and works as a shift lead. He is a humble well liked young man by my 9 sisters and 3 brothers many friends and a good support system on my side of family. I am here for him but how can a father do this to a son and call it “tough love” Where do I start over after all he”s been through. He saved money bought a car with cash and is responsible. Any advice appreciated.

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Hey Sigmund

Your son sounds like a wonderful young man. Let him know that you are there for him and if you believe the treatment was unfair, let your son know that. It would also be worth chatting to him about what he (your son) might have been able to have done differently, or what he might be able to do now. It is impossible to say without knowing all of the details, but what he needs to hear is that whatever happened, it is no measure of the young man he is or the person he is growing into. If his dad is making him doubt his self worth, your son needs to hear a different point of view, and you can give him that. It is difficult to understand the way some parents show love, but it doesn’t mean his dad doesn’t love him. Let your son know this. His dad will have all sorts of reasons for doing what he did – his own history and insecurities? pressure from home? – who knows – we can only speculate, but the point is that none of those reasons are likely to have anything to do with the man your son is, anything he did, or how much his father loves him. The most important thing is that your son is able to see the response as an over-reaction if that’s what it was, and not a reflection on the amazing man your son is.

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HisMom

Thank you to you and all the school counselors who work tirelessly with our youth. This could have been my child you were talking to. I am so thankful he had a counselor to talk to – and sought him out – when he was having suicidal ideations.
Please take any child/youth/person seriously when they talk of suicide. They are asking for help.

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Chris T

We are in the middle of this pain with our teenage son. He has been to several treatment centers for anxiety, has hated us for sending him, and is now overwhelmed with the pointlessness of life. I appreciate the timliness of this article, but was left wondering….then what? Having that person to talk to…is that all it takes? Where does one go from that point in order to continue the pathway to healing and to save a child?

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Hey Sigmund

Chris this sounds like such a distressing time for your family. You have done the right thing getting your son professional support. It is difficult to know what your son needs and it is very likely that he doesn’t know himself. This is why having someone for him to talk to is so important. Therapy will help your son to explore what might be contributing to his pain and help him to find what he needs to move forward. Love and strength to you and your family.

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Anne R

Chris, your situation is shockingly like ours with our son. We are in the process of trying to figure out “what now” also. It is so difficult to navigate a pathway forward after having done all the things we thought would brig hope and healing to our son. Instead, seemed to deepen the depreasion and anxiety, and annihilate our relationship with him. We are going all out to repair trust and relationship first and foremost. Will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.

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Sharon H

Although it wasn’t a suicide attempt, my sweet 12 year old niece had to be taken to the ER because she slit her wrists. For the next week, she was not to be left alone. My brother and his wife were shocked. They are excellent parents but Tara’s self-esteem was so low that she felt she really didn’t matter to anyone and thus never told them of how she was feeling inside. She is better now, but it came as such a shock to all of us.

This article has helped me to deal with my own feelings regarding this event. Thank you.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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