Adolescent Suicide: Speaking Up for Our Children

Our children need adults and health professionals to step up, evaluate their problems, advocate for them, and provide support so that they can become healthy adults. Suicidal thinking among adolescents, typically known to be vibrant and carefree citizens, is a reality that we adults would rather ignore. However, ignoring the problem only perpetuates lack of knowledge and understanding, compassion, and access to available resources and help. The following facts can help facilitate your knowledge of teen suicide.

Quick facts for parents about adolescent suicide:

1.      Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the United States ages 15-24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

2.      Approximately 3% of adolescents engage in medically serious suicide attempts. These suicide attempts often predate serious, overlooked, or untreated mental illnesses. Typically occurring mental illnesses among adolescents who attempt suicide include: major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder (previous termed manic depression), severe and untreated anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center (2012), the approximate number of Americans over 18 with severe bipolar disorder is 5.1 million (2.2% of the population). In the case of untreated mental illness, annual suicides by Americans with severe mental illness include a total of 6,000 lives. Young males are more likely to commit suicide than young females, often because they utilize more aggressive means such as guns.

3.      NAMI also reports that 50% of students age 14 and older drop out of school due to mental health problems. In fact, students from community colleges are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders compared to students who attend 4-year colleges and universities. Again, these disorders can often lead to suicidal behaviors. About 68% of community colleges offer some sort of psychiatric care, but there is increased need for such services. One reason for this might be socio-cultural and socio-economic factors that can lead to mental health problems. Amy Lenhart from the American College Counseling Association Community College Task Force states that “two year college students are more likely than university students to be employed or supporting family members while they attend school — stressors that can take their toll on these students’ mental health.” She further states that “community colleges don’t have residence life staff who help faculty and staff watch out for signs of student mental illness….” This lack of attention provides the conditions necessary for overlooked mental illness and serious signs of mental health difficulties such as self-injurious behaviors (i.e. cutting or burning) and suicidal ideation.

NOTE: Suicidal ideation is often defined as thoughts of committing suicide. The thought of committing suicide may or may not entail a plan (a way to end one’s life) or the means (a weapon, medication, etc.). Clinicians often screen for plan or intent as well as means by asking a variety of questions. If hospitalization is warranted, the individual is perceived as a danger to self and in need of supervision until stabilized. Immediate hospitalization is a means by which short-term stabilization may occur.

4.      Approximately 12 million children under the age of 18 have a mental disorder according to the National Institute of Health. Mental health problems among adolescents are a serious concern today. It is a reality that continues to affect the lives of many youth and creates various challenges that can and usually do interfere with the smooth progression through adolescence. In fact, education, interpersonal relationships with family and friends, as well as the ability to make mature decisions is often impaired when mental health issues are overlooked or undermined.

A few things parents should be aware of when trying to understand suicidal ideation among the adolescent population:

Understand common symptoms of mental illness

The best way to ensure that we are knowledgeable about the very things that can affect our families, loved ones, and friends is by becoming knowledgeable about the signs and symptoms of mental illness. Mental illness can be insidious because the signs and symptoms are not always easily detectable, especially among high functioning, well-educated individuals or individuals who hide behind social “masks.” Each successive step we take NOW toward educating ourselves to mental illness and toward local and national systemic improvement creates better opportunities for our future. Learn more about mental health disorders that commonly affect children and adolescents at the Child Mind Institute: http://www.childmind.org/en/quick-facts  or http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/index.shtml.

Know that mental illness affects us all

Despite widespread mental health advocacy, there are still segments of our society that entail individuals who are seriously misinformed about the origins of mental illness. Mental illness can affect any race, culture, age group, and socio-economic class. Education, prestige, wealth, or culture has nothing at all to do with the effects of mental illness. For example, any child who is genetically vulnerable to depression or anxiety is at risk for developing depression or anxiety. We now know that genes, environment, and biology all interact to produce vulnerabilities or predispositions to mental illness.

Understand the “teenage brain”

When speaking to parents of teenagers I always say “it is difficult surviving the teenage brain.” The teen brain undergoes extensive neurological changes and developments that often interfere with proper behavioral management, mature decision making, and control of impulsivity. The “teenage brain” is a project all by itself! Research studies have shown that the movement toward independence is often a difficult process for our adolescents. They struggle with a sense of identity and belonging, fear of stigma when it comes to mental health and behavioral disorders, isolation, moodiness (often encompassing clinical depression), career choice difficulty, and various peer-related difficulties. I am of the firm belief that a stable, healthy environment and parental support can offer enormous protection against typical teenage difficulties. Learn more about the teenage brain from http://www.teenmentalhealth.org/.

Research your local Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) laws

AOT is often necessary in cases involving a lack of awareness of severe, untreated psychiatric problems. It is also necessary in cases involving individuals with severe mental illness who are a danger to themselves or others. Currently, 44 states have AOT laws established. Some states have established laws, but they are not reinforced. It is up to parents, educators, mental health professionals, and doctors to assure that our state laws are being enforced to protect our children. Not only are we protecting the children of our society, but also children that we love dearly in our own personal lives. We can never be sure that a family member is going to “escape” any difficulties with their mental health. We shouldn’t have to become motivated to enforce change after we ourselves encounter mental illness on a personal level. Ensuring our laws are upheld, will ensure greater access to treatment.

Know your state laws and patient bill of rights

Laws vary by state and often mental health rules and regulations such as involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital or AOT vary. It is important, especially if you have a loved one suffering from severe mental illness or untreated mental illness, that you understand how the law affects access to treatment. Find your state laws at: http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/get-help/know-the-laws-in-your-state.

While social issues, relationships, peers, education, and occupational interests seem to be utopia in the lives of our adolescents, appropriate attention to their mental and emotional health is just as important. Supporting our children and becoming more sensitive to their needs is a universal responsibility. I often tell parents, your “problematic child” deserves full attention because that one child affects the whole family unit. The same is true in our society. One child who does not receive the appropriate mental health treatment, becomes a threat to themselves and perhaps even to society at large. One child who receives proper mental health treatment will eventually contribute to society in positive ways, simply by being a well-adjusted adult.

I encourage you to educate yourself, become motivated about the mental health-related issues that affect us, and become knowledgeable about the mental health struggles of a loved one. The most valuable educational experience is that of a personal nature.

In support of National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, often acknowledged each year from May 6-May 12th, I want to encourage you to become aware of the Speak up for Kids Campaign. Find out more at http://www.childmind.org/en/speak-up-for-kids/.

Read more on Preventing Teen Suicide

If you or someone you know is in crisis or in need of immediate help, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

This is a free hotline available 24 hours a day to anyone in emotional distress or suicidal crisis.

International readers can click here for a list of helplines and crisis centers around the world.

If you are a teen considering suicide or in need of help, you can also call The Trevor Project: 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386)

About the Author

Tamara Hill Támara Hill, MS is a therapist specializing in child and adolescent behavioral and mood disorders including trauma. She works with families to help them understand their options within the mental health system and helps kids utilize their strengths in the home, school, and community. As an internationally quoted therapist and media contributor, Tamara aims to empower families from various walks of life to gain further knowledge and rediscover authentic living. Visit her sites at Anchored-In-Knowledge or Caregivers, Family, & Friends.

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One Comment

Kelli

Very well written article! Thank you so much for this. As a nurse, I have seen many kids feeling very despondant and considering suicide as a way out. How can parents and professionals learn to be sensitive to a child who contemplates suicide? I think your article explains that in great depth. Become knowledgeable, be compassionate, and contribute to a world largely unaware of suicide.

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