The threat of teenage suicide

By: Christine Langlois

Author: Canadian Living


The threat of teenage suicide

By: Christine Langlois


A teen who is depressed or has alcohol or drug abuse problems, is violent, has been abused or is experiencing family turmoil is more at risk for committing or attempting to commit suicide. Among teens fifteen to nineteen, the rate of suicide has increased steadily for the past fifty years.

Teens who have suffered a loss of some kind are more at risk for suicide. It could be the loss of a loved one through death or divorce, the end of a relationship, or the loss of friends. When a teen faces several stresses at once, he is more at risk. For example, a teen who leaves friends and girlfriend behind to go to a new school may be more at risk.

For parents, the terror that your child might be suicidal may be so painful that it's almost paralyzing. You don't want to think about it, you don't want to talk to anyone about it, and you don't have any idea how to approach your teen about your fears. But it's only by facing your own fears, by asking for help, and by opening up a discussion that you can help prevent his self-destructive behaviour.

First, you must learn to recognize the signs -- the most obvious being that your child actually threatens suicide. Always take such threats seriously. Less obviously, he might refer to his own death by saying something like "Nobody would care if I was dead" or "What's the point of living, anyway?" Other signs that a teen is suicidal are similar to the signs of depression. They are: overwhelming sadness, increased crying, mood swings, loss of appetite, loss of interest in personal hygiene, changes in sleeping habits, isolation or withdrawal from school, friends, family, poor concentration and failing grades, delinquent behaviour, and alcohol or drug abuse.

If your teen threatens suicide or writes a suicide note, treat the situation as an emergency and seek immediate medical help by calling your family doctor or going to your local emergency department. If your son refuses to see the doctor himself, offer other sources of help. Your doctor can guide you to the best course of action.

Parents are often afraid to say the word suicide out loud for fear of putting the idea in their child's head. But your child needs to know that you're aware of his pain, that you're there to listen and not to judge. Ask him about his feelings: "You seem really low. What's bothering you?" Ask him if he has considered suicide: "Do you sometimes wish you were dead?" And ask if he has made any plans to carry out suicide: "Have you thought about how you would do it?" Don't trivialize or shrug off anything that your child says. Avoid anger or belittlement. Keep communication open so that your child knows he can come to you any time to talk about his feelings of sadness or his suicidal thoughts.

Can anyone help?

You don't have to handle your adolescent's crisis alone. Every community offers resources for parents when their love is no longer enough to help their teen. Ask your physician, public health department, school, clergy, or your local chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Don't let embarrassment or shame keep you from seeking help for your teen; go and pick up the phone. Make sure you inquire about cost, although if the service is funded by one level of government, there is usually no charge.

Because a teen's family plays a large part in her life, a professional may suggest family therapy. If your teen refuses to go for help, make an appointment for yourself. You might reach insights about the problem and how your reactions and behaviour affect your teen. The whole family can benefit from one member's therapy.

One or more of the following professionals may be able to help you and your family through a teen crisis.

Family physician or pediatrician
Your family doctor can give an overall examination that will determine whether or not a physical disorder is the source of, or a contributing factor to the problem. Because she is also concerned with the psychological and social aspects of your family's health, she can refer you to other experts who might help. If your teen refuses to see the doctor, go in yourself to discuss the problem and the options. Your physician can suggest parenting strategies and refer your teen to resources he may be more comfortable with. Doctors with a special interest in adolescent medicine often work in clinics offering a multidisciplinary approach to teens and their families.

School nurse
This health professional may be less threatening for your teen. Registered nurses who work full- or part-time in schools usually have expertise in working with teens. Phone the school secretary to find out the times that the school nurse is available and whether she's able to see your teen on a regular basis. As your child builds trust in her, he may agree to her consulting other professionals on his behalf, and then follow through to seek appropriate help.

These physicians have specialized training in assessing and treating mental health problems; they can prescribe drugs as well as provide various kinds of therapy.

Social worker
This professional can help your teen help herself by providing information, support, and practical advice.

Trained in assessing people through tests and questionnaires, a psychologist can also offer therapy.

Parent support groups
Support groups provide a safe place to share problems and brainstorm solutions. Many groups teach parenting skills and strategies.

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The threat of teenage suicide