Wes: A reader asked that we revisit the issue of suicide among teens, a concern once again in area communities. Among all the topics we’ve addressed, I find this the most troubling. This is in part because teen suicide is so sensationalized in the media, as to generate book, movie and song parodies, and yet it’s a deeply emotional issue. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teens (behind accidents and murder), though it remains thankfully rare. About 1,500 teens are known to commit suicide in a given year in the United States. Each incident asks us to re-examine our communities and ourselves to consider why it happens even once.
Past readers have asked for a list of warning signs. I’ve tended to go along, reluctantly. Today we’ll emphasize something different, because lists actually limit our ability to help young people in distress. They yield false-positives and false security at the same time, and offer no substitute for real and crucial understanding.
Instead lets consider anyone as having a potential for self-harm, given the right set of circumstances and stressors, with teenagers being especially prone to feelings of loneliness, alienation and self-destruction. Then we can see that the best response is to value each other everyday; reach out kindly; consider how we impact the lives around us.
I’ve been reading the young adult novel “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which addresses this quite poignantly. It reminds us that we are all interconnected and, to an extent, responsible for each other in our words and actions. Yet increasingly, teenagers follow adults in our society, showing a callous disregard for personal worth and human suffering — in favor of a perverted version of free speech that often comes anonymously, and thus without personal responsibility. Texting, e-mail and Facebook make harsh interactions profoundly impersonal, as if writing it down and sending it makes it OK.
Only a tiny fraction of teens will respond to the difficulties around them by taking their own lives, but many will feel that way. As adults, it’s our responsibility to help them find a better way. That involves leading them toward a sense of self-worth and emphasizing the worth of others. To be very clear, no one is responsible for a known suicide except the person committing it. Collective guilt is not what I’m suggesting. But the choices we make in our daily interactions belong to us.
Samantha rocks this issue below, so I’ll close with a more specific suggestion. Schools needn’t tap their tiny, dwindling budgets to create sensible and humane response plans for coping with a student suicide. They just need to study the literature, sit down and make wise choices for how to respond BEFORE the need arises. There are numerous mental health resources in the public and private sector ready to help. Individuals and organizations only need reach out.
Samantha: In high school, almost everyone knows someone who has thought about committing suicide. While most don’t choose to go through with it, even hearing the idea vocalized is terrifying. Some with suicidal thoughts have issues at home or within themselves that none of us can control. For others the problem lies with interpersonal issues at school. We’ve all heard cases of teens killing themselves because they’ve been bullied by classmates.
I would venture to say that 90 percent of people are not mean-spirited or intentionally hurtful. So how do the cruel 10 percent of people get away with what they do? It’s the followers. They allow it to happen without blinking an eye. I hate to be a cynic, but I’ve come to believe that followers make up most of the population. And yet it’s hard to blame them. Taking a stand is scary; no one wants to risk being the next target.
I get it. I’m no Gandhi. I’ve slipped into bashing someone so excruciatingly annoying that I convince myself he’s brought it upon himself. I think we need to realize that just like academic intelligence, there is social intelligence, and some people just aren’t very gifted. They have trouble picking up on social cues, so they behave in ways we find odd or annoying. I’m still developing patience for these people. Sometimes what I say feels like word vomit — awful things flowing out of my mouth without my control. But I do have control. It’s a matter of training myself to think before I speak.
My mom once had a notepad with yoga’s principles of mindful speech written on them. I think they’re dead on. We’re supposed to ask ourselves three questions before we say something: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? When tempted to pile on complaints about someone, thinking through these questions can help slow down the thought process and let the right words come to the surface.
It’s definitely a challenge, and I don’t always succeed. However, when I feel guilty for talking badly about someone, I try to reverse it. I look for something I like about her, and I compliment her on it. I see it as tipping the scale of someone’s day slightly toward the positive. I think we all weigh our days subconsciously, counting up the good and bad things to give it a final rating. Those days add up. People who think about committing suicide feel like their lives are tipped toward the negative. We must remember we all have the ability to add some weight on the positive side.
Contest: The annual Double Take co-author’s contest will go to press April 13 with a challenge question for teens to answer. High school seniors from Lawrence high schools and the surrounding area are eligible. A scholarship from Family Therapy Institute Midwest goes to the winner for the 2010-2011 school year. Deadline will be April 27, with interviews May 1.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.