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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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