Q: Some close friends of ours recently lost their teenage son to suicide. All of us are devastated, and our friends are racked with guilt. We're also concerned about how this will affect other kids; what can we do?
Jim: I understand; not that long ago, there were five suicides at my sons' relatively small high school in less than two years. The scale of the tragedy was shocking. Heartbroken parents, peers and school officials were left grappling with one question: "What did I miss?"
The sobering truth is that any parent can overlook important signs that their child is at risk for self-harm if they don't know what to look for. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among teens. As parents and concerned citizens, we need to understand the causes of this epidemic.
Experts say that personal and family history, conflicts at home or school, lack of parental interest, personality disorders, illnesses, and past abuse or trauma can all play a part. That's not to mention the hormonal instability, immaturity and lack of experience that are typical of adolescence. In other words, suicide is often the result of a "perfect storm" of interrelated psychological problems, many of which are not under the victim's conscious control.
Depression is one of the most common conditions among teenagers contemplating suicide. They may lose interest in their favorite activities or say they feel worthless. You may even notice them giving away prized possessions, telling people goodbye, or isolating from family and friends. They may also be involved in drugs and alcohol or act out with reckless behavior. And be sure to watch out for romantic breakups, problems with bullies or humiliating situations at school. Those events can trigger a downward spiral into suicidal behavior. And, like what happened at my boys' school, one suicide may prompt other teens to follow suit.
If you see any of these signs, talk to your teenager and find out what's going on. They may not immediately open up, but keep reaching out to them and get to the truth. If there is a problem, seek professional help that will equip them to find positive solutions when life gets tough. Most of all, encourage them to never choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Many people believe suicide is a taboo subject -- something we dare not mention, thinking that talking about suicide may actually encourage it. But that's a misconception. In reality, frank discussion of suicide-related fears, doubts and tensions is one of the best ways of preventing self-destructive behavior among young people.
It's not easy, but talk about the issue of suicide with your teen. And encourage teachers, church and community leaders, and your fellow parents to address the topic as well. If you're worried about a loved one, intervene. Talk to a pastor or counselor, or call your local suicide hotline. By bringing the issue into the light, you'll be offering a lifeline to someone who may have lost hope.
Here at Focus on the Family, we've heard from so many families dealing with this issue that we knew we needed to do something more. So we have just released "Alive to Thrive" -- a faith-based program that explores the social, psychological and spiritual aspects of the epidemic.
This new resource is written by clinical experts and is designed to help parents, youth workers, ministry leaders and teachers intervene before thoughts of suicide turn into action. You can find out more at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
Meanwhile, if any reader would like some direct advice and assistance -- or if you're having suicidal thoughts yourself, no matter what your age -- I urge you to contact our staff counselors at 1-855-771-HELP (4357). There is reason to live.