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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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?

Reply
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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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