A recent study reported that for the first time ever more middle school students are dying from suicide than from car crashes. Not only that, but the number of suicides among children as young as eight, nine or ten years old is also increasing. Researchers are only guessing as to why so many of our children and teenagers are ending their lives in such record numbers. The trend has become an epidemic that is rarely mentioned and far too many parents are unaware of the signs that there is trouble.
There are a number of possibilities suggested as to why suicide has become such a problem. Young people today increasingly see the world as being a dangerous and violent place. News stories often make them feel as though they are living under constant threat of harm. In addition there has been a breakdown of healthy relationships in many families leading children to feel insecure and sometimes even unloved. Ours is a fast paced world that stresses hard work and excellence. Some kids feel unrelenting pressures to excel in every aspect of their lives. Television and movies all too often depict suicide as a good way to end problems. Of course there is also the specter of social media which sometimes serves as a catalyst for bullying and the creation of unrealistic expectations of beauty, luxury and unending happiness. There is also a problem with adults, particularly parents failing to acknowledge the signs of depression and its power to lead their children to suicide.
There have always been young people who decided to take their lives, but never in the numbers that are being recorded today. When I was young virtually everyone sat down together with members of the family to share dinner. We took that opportunity to talk about the days’ events and to reinforce the idea that we cared for one another. All too often today the tradition of gathering around the table has been replaced with meals quickly consumed in front of the television or on the go. Members of the family are often moving in so many different directions that opportunities to actually talk with one another are brief or rare, especially once children become teenagers.
Latch key kids are abundant and they spend their afternoons unsupervised. They may become isolated by hours of playing video games or may even find inappropriate television programs to watch. They spend hours texting friends with their parents rarely being privy to what kind of messages are being exchanged. They may be engaged in dangerous situations for which they do not have the maturity to react in a healthy manner. In a sense they often lead secret and disturbing lives apart from their parents without anyone knowing the extent of the treacherous paths down which they are travelling.
There are ways that adults should more closely monitor their children rather than just assuming that all is well. When my own daughters were teenagers a very good friend advised me to find out as much about what they were doing as possible. I did so in both overt and covert ways. I talked with my girls constantly and observed their behaviors, watching for even subtle changes. I also listened to their friends and the parents of their friends to find out more information about their habits. I enlisted the help of an army of caring people to make sure that all was well. Even then I missed cues now and again.
My youngest daughter suffers from depression just as my mother did. She began to exhibit more and more isolated behavior and seemed to be in a continual state of tears when she was in high school. I remember the night when I found her sitting in the dark in her bedroom rocking back and forth while crying. I sat on the floor with her and held her in my arms as though she was a toddler, coaxing her to tell me about her feelings and what was driving them until she finally admitted that she felt lost and confused. I made an appointment for her to see a doctor the next day and began to engage in more and more frank conversations with her. She made it past that valley of despair, but she often told me that ultimately it was her profound belief in God and the sanctity of life that had prevented her from harming herself. Ironically my mother had often told me the same thing about her own moments of mental distress. Needless to say I rejoiced in knowing that by providing my child with a religious foundation I may have saved her life.
If parents see dramatic changes in their children it is dangerous to simply assume that the new behaviors are hormonal or typical. Warning signs come in the form of falling grades, difficulties sleeping, headaches or other physical manifestations. Children who lose interest in hobbies or friends are sending signals that something is very wrong. Changes in personality are another clue. Frequent tears, outbursts of anger, long periods of isolation inside a darkened room may all be pointing to problems that must be addressed. While teenagers are infamous for their constant texting, if this habit also appears to be associated with aggression or a lack of self esteem there may be a need for getting to the bottom of what kind of information is being exchanged.
We’ve always had bullies but never to the twenty four seven extent that some kids now endure. Social media all too often becomes a minefield for attacking youngsters. Sometimes those participating in the emotional assaults don’t even know the people that they are intimidating. For them it is just a sick game, but for the teenager who is the butt of their commentaries it can become unbearable. There is nowhere to hide, no way to stop the misery. They all too often hide what is happening out of a feeling of shame. Being so alone bears heavily on them. They need help but don’t know how to find it. It is up to adults to be conscious of such situations and work to assist the victims in retrieving their sense of security and self respect.
It’s become popular for some adults to refer to youth who struggle to adjust to the many challenges that they face as “snowflakes” as though they are simply so delicate that they cannot adjust to the realities of life. This is akin to the people who would urge my mother to get control of herself when she was in the midst of a psychotic episode as part of her bipolar disorder. At the time the chemistry of her brain was so askew that she did not possess the power to stop the madness that engulfed her. She needed the help of caring family members, friends and medical professionals to get her life back on track. The lack of understanding that she continually faced made her challenges even more difficult than they needed to be. Such it is for youngsters who are in crisis. Shaming them for falling victim to depression so debilitating that they have suicidal thoughts is not an answer. Instead we all must be vigilant in assisting anyone whose ideation becomes dark and worrisome.
Teachers are often the first to notice problems with a young person. Instead of ignoring such concerns it is paramount that they contact the school counselor, the nurse, the parents or all of the above. Sometimes kids are so good at hiding their pain that their families are the last to know that there are difficulties. Honest conversations have to take place, always punctuated with love and concern. At the same time we should teach our kids to be good friends who are willing to let us know if someone is struggling more than normal. We must then either contact the school or the parents to alert them to what is happening. Those are difficult conversations, but they may save lives.
Rescuing our children from thoughts of suicide should be of paramount concern to all of us. We need to spend more time talking with them and helping them to feel safe in confessing their problems. We need to watch for the warning signs and take aggressive and loving action before the worst happens. It is up to all of us to bring down the distressing suicide statistics among the youngest in our society. We need to begin some difficult discussions with ourselves, each other and our children. Nothing else that we do is more important.