Look At Teen Suicide: Reading This May Save Someone You Know
By Marshall Dury, Internet Reporter
In the past seven weeks, three children under the age of 18 have killed themselves at schools in Pennsylvania, an unusual trend for the state. What is important to note is that these events are not isolated to any one region. Researchers and clinicians consider youth suicide to be an epidemic that is sweeping the country with not nearly enough attention being paid to the problem.
According to the American Association of Suicidology (AAS), 12 young people between the ages of 15-24 die every day by suicide. The researchers, clinicians and parents who have worked with many of these young people hope this startling statistic will drop in the coming years.
"We need to address whether or not our children are safe in their homes," said Dr. Lynne Fullerton-Gleason, Director of the Suicide Prevention Research Center (SPRC). "We need young people and adults to understand that a lifestyle with depression, which can lead to suicide, is not embarrassing or shameful - it requires immediate attention."
Every Statistic is Someone's Child
The AAS also reports that in an average high school classroom (depending on geographic data), it is likely that three students - one male and two females -have attempted to commit suicide in the past year. Additionally, suicide rates for 15-24 year olds have increased by more than 200 percent in the past 50 years. Yet some professionals in the field who are working with young people have found that sometimes parents misunderstand what their child is feeling and experiencing.
"I think sometimes a parent's understanding of a youth's depression [and thoughts of suicide] now-a-days isn't always the reality of the situation," said Clark Flatt, President / CEO of the Jason Foundation, a Tenn. based program that educates young people and parents about youth suicide. "I think parents may think if a child has a roof over their head and food on their table, they have nothing to be depressed about, which isn't true."
In his work with the Jason Foundation, Flatt has noticed a feeling of hopelessness and "failed dreams" among many suicidal youth. He believes that the moment when someone recognizes that a child feels there is "no use in living" is the most important time to act.
"We need to be able to see that sometimes teenagers and young people can't heal themselves and they may not always be willing to ask for help," said Flatt.
Fullerton-Gleason believes that looking at our society's social structure is the most important, but possibly most difficult, method of understanding why youths decide to kill themselves.
"It's not always easy to critically look at your own culture but if [kids] are taking their own lives, it may have something to do with the way we are running our communities," said Fullerton-Gleason.
For example, the SPRC's research shows a growing trend in sexual activity, obesity and drug use among this group of youth- which may have a link to suicide rates.
Although it is widely accepted that being a teenager is a time of "finding oneself," the Youth Suicide Prevention Education Program in Arizona notes the added pressure from parents, the self-doubt among one's peers and fears of growing up can also add stressors at an already overwhelming time for teens.
How Do You Recognize Someone Who is at Risk For Suicide?
The alarming statistics for youth suicide can be offset by the ability to make an impact on the number of young people who are taking their lives every day. There are a number of warning signs to youth suicide, and with the help of a trusted friend or professional, it can be prevented.
According to Flatt, the most important aspect of prevention is to involve many people in helping those who are coping with suicidal thoughts. He believes the greater the support system, the better the chance of success in preventing suicide.
"Never assume that one resource or one person is enough to handle something like [suicide]," Flatt said. "Getting a professional involved with the support of friends and family is one of the best ways to go about helping someone."
The widespread stigma associated with being "suicidal" or having "mental health problems" is sometimes what keeps youths from stepping forward and getting help, according to Flatt.
If a young person talks about feeling hopeless, has had a recent severe loss or withdraws from friends, clubs or normal daily activities, he or she may need immediate help, according to the AAS.
Confidentiality is also something else that both Flatt and Fuller-Gleason believe complicates suicide prevention. The concept of confidentiality assumes that a listener is sworn to secrecy, which is not a good promise for the victim.
"Teens aren't always safest if they are guaranteed confidentiality. Swearing someone to secrecy is a problem because if you don't tell someone, you're running the risk that the person may kill themselves - you're gambling with someone's life," said Fuller-Gleason. "A youth is really safest if a trusted adult is told about the suicidal thoughts [or depression]."
The Probable Link Between Depression and Suicide
One common question asked after a suicide attempt or completed suicide is: "Was he/she depressed?" Research shows that it is a valid question, as two-thirds of the people who complete suicide are clinically depressed.
Linda Lebelle, Director of Focus Adolescent Services, an internet resource and support site for teens and parents, has found that substance abuse can commonly lead to a feeling of depression. The effects of methane, ecstasy and alcohol are known as "back-brain depressants" and can add to negative feelings.
"These sorts of substances can bring on the feeling of hopelessness," said Lebelle. "But what we're actually looking at is the feeling of depression - a feeling of hopelessness so strong that it feels like it won't end."
Lebelle also thinks that depression can also stem from the seemingly harmless act of bullying or teasing at school. The importance of and need for acceptance among young people can cause youth to call into question their own sense of belonging in their circle of friends or family.
"I think that we need to begin to understand 'emotional intelligence' - the ability to understand what others are feeling," said Lebelle. "Developing empathy in children and young people alike is crucial - so they will understand how others feel when they hurt someone."
Depression and the feeling of hopelessness is something Flatt says causes a questioning of one's self worth. Breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend, the loss of a sibling or a recent, public failure in school is commonly referred to as a "trigger event." However, he thinks that the phrase "trigger event" can be very deceptive to parents.
"The term 'trigger event' is misleading because it sounds as though you can't do anything about it and this was something that just broadsided [a youth]," said Flatt. "The reality is that there is usually evidence of long-term coping problems. What is commonly referred to as the 'trigger event' is just the straw that broke the camel's back."
One program created by Flatt that operates out of Hendersonville, Tenn. is trying to make a difference in young adults' and parents' lives before there is even a problem.
The Personal Story Behind the Jason Foundation
The Jason Foundation is a nonprofit educational program designed to be taught in health and wellness classes in grade schools and high schools, focusing on peer support in dealing with suicide. The curriculum is a five-day course that helps both youths and adults understand the problems surrounding youth suicide and recognize the warning signs.
The uncharacteristic aspect of the program is that it directly asks how teachers and the students can help their friends with a serious problem that could lead to a suicide.
"The program we've developed here stresses the third-person, which is not all too common in dealing with suicide," said Flatt. "We don't ask students to look inwardly, but rather look outwardly for their friends and family. While they're learning how to help others, they're hopefully learning how to ask for help for themselves if it's ever needed."
The program sets any subscribing school up with instructional videos, interactive CDs, teacher lesson plan books, parent / teacher seminars and teaching kits that allow them to educate both teens and parents on suicide prevention.
The loss associated with suicide is something Flatt and his family knows all too well. His son, Jason, was only 16 years old when he took his own life inside the Flatts' home. In "A Father's Letter" posted on the Jason Foundation's Website, Flatt tells the personal story of how his son "from all appearance ... loved life."
"I was the one who opened the door to his room and stumbled over his body. Believe me when I say, there are no words to describe that kind of pain," Flatt says in his letter. "The statistics [on suicide] are alarming, but my research also gave me hope because it showed me that [it] can be prevented."
Flatt organized the foundation with his wife Connie and his son John. The foundations efforts to prevent suicide have not gone unnoticed, as the Jason Foundation will have a presence in 47 states and 20 regional/national offices by August of this year. The program's teacher-friendly approach and gradual learning process for individuals are components Flatt hopes will give his program longevity.
"Youth suicide is a silent epidemic that is quietly taking our children," said Flatt. "Raising awareness as to what mental health is and more hands-on training will help us know what we need to do in order to drastically reduce youth suicides. I honestly believe that can happen."
Clark Flatt, President / CEO of the Jason Foundation. For more information on the Jason Foundation, go to http://www.jasonfoundation.com/flash.html.
Dr. Lynne Fullerton-Gleason, Director of Suicide Prevention Research Center. For more information on the SPRC, go to http://www.suicideprc.com.
Linda Lebelle, Director Of Focus Adolescent Services. For more information on FAS, go to http://www.focusas.com.
For more information on the Suicide Prevention Action Network USA, go to http://www.spanusa.org.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts about suicide, call 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433). Calls are connected to a certified crisis center nearest the caller's location and services are available 24 hours a day.
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339