It's everyone's worst nightmare: Getting a call or finding out that someone you knew has completed suicide. People ask themselves, “Why?” They say things like, “I should have known. I wish I would have said something.”
According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported by the Wall Street Journal, teen suicides increased 56% between 2007 and 2017. The influence of social media and the dramatic spike in cyberbullying has been shown to have a direct correlation with teen suicide rates.
Suicide in Idaho: The Data
Startlingly, Idaho is number one in the nation for cyberbullying. Correspondingly, suicide is the leading cause of death for Idaho teenagers according to the latest data by WorldLife.
According to the CDC’s 2019 at-risk behavior study of high school students in Idaho, in 2019
- 6% seriously considered attempting suicide in the last 12 months;
- 3% made a plan for attempting suicide;
- 6% actually attempted suicide; and
- 9% felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row, and they stopped doing many of their usual activities.
With the prevalence of anxiety, depression, bullying, and trauma throughout Idaho, it is no surprise that our kids are at greater risk of suicide than the national average. There are things every parent, grandparent, aunt and uncle, advocate, and adult need to know about recognizing the signs of suicide and how to get help.
Who is at risk?
There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for who is at risk for suicide. Young people from all different walks of life are vulnerable.
During adolescence, the brain undergoes some dramatic changes which inhibit young people's abilities to make good long-term decisions or to recognize that a difficult situation is only temporary. Teenagers have neither the mental development nor the experience to recognize that difficult situations don't last forever and that the ups and downs of adolescence—like breakups or fights—are not, in fact, the end of the world. It is important for adults to show compassion and empathy when young people are experiencing the woes of adolescence. To an adult mind, breaking up with a boyfriend or having a fight with a best friend might not sound like anything to worry about; but to a teenager who may have already been vulnerable, these sorts of ups and downs can be devastating.
The kids who are most at risk are those with a traumatic or difficult background. In 1997, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente embarked on the landmark ACEs study. They asked 17,000 adults about experiences in childhood and correlated them to long-term physical, mental, and behavioral health outcomes. That study found that when a person experiences four or more ACEs, that person is twelve times more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime.
If a young person has experienced any of the ten ACEs or any other traumatic event—such as the loss of a friend or loved one, an assault, or even something like a natural disaster—they may be at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
At the root of trauma is toxic stress. Toxic stress is stress that is prolonged and felt over a period of time, which keeps people in a constant state of anxiety.
That is why the COVID-19 pandemic has been so devastating. The ongoing turmoil and stress of the pandemic has been correlated with increased divorce rates and increased suicides. Young people who have experienced toxic stress including the pandemic or things like living in a dysfunctional household, witnessing domestic violence, or experiencing abuse or neglect are considerably more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime.
What should you watch out for?
Adults, parents, and caregivers should always be on the lookout when it comes to teenagers’ mental and behavioral health.
While there is no one-size-fits-all experience, there are several warning signs when a friend or loved one is considering suicide:
- Talking about suicide; for example, making statements like “I wish I'd never been born” or “you'd be better off without me.”
- Getting the means to take one's own life, such as stockpiling pills.
- Withdrawing from social contact or wanting to be left alone.
- Dramatic mood swings, such as being emotionally high or manic one day and being overwhelmingly sad the next.
- Feeling trapped or hopeless in the situation.
- Increased or beginning use of drugs and/or alcohol.
- A sudden or dramatic change in daily routine, including sleeping patterns.
- Giving away belongings.
- Engaging in dangerous or self-harming behaviors.
- Developing significant personality changes, such as being extremely anxious or agitated on a regular basis, particularly in conjunction with any of the signs above.
If a parent thinks there is something off with their teenager, even if they're not displaying the warning signs above, they should try to engage their child. No one knows your kid better than you do, Mom and Dad. If something feels wrong, it doesn't hurt to ask. Even if they are not actively suicidal, if something feels wrong it may be that they are dealing with something that is overwhelming and they don't know how to ask for help.
How can you help?
Parents can help teens and loved ones who are depressed or suicidal by showing up and asking questions about your child's health and well-being. Even if your teenager rolls their eyes or doesn't show a great amount of interest in talking with you, reaching out is still enormously beneficial.
If a teenager confides in you that they've considered hurting themselves, there are several things to not do. It is important not to try to “fix the problem” by telling them, “But that's a silly thing” or “that's nothing to kill yourself over.”
The last thing you should do is trivialize their feelings or tell them they are being overdramatic. If a young person confides in you that they are suicidal or having suicidal thoughts, always take it seriously.
It is important to listen with compassion, and if a teenager confides in you that they are considering suicide, it is also important to find help for them. If they have made a plan or already made an attempt, you will need a higher level of care designed specifically for suicidal youth. If a young person is considering suicide it is important to get them in to see a professional as soon as possible.
Most importantly, do not leave them alone.
Here is a list of what you can do if someone talks about having suicidal thoughts.
- Encourage the person to seek treatment. Even if they are not actively suicidal, a person having suicidal thoughts or ideations needs professional help.
- Offer to help them get the help they need and let them know that you are there for them.
- Be respectful of the other person's feelings and speak without shame, judgment, condemnation, or shock.
- Do not promise to keep suicidal thoughts a secret. If someone is considering hurting themselves, do not keep that information to yourself.
- Remove potentially dangerous items from their environment.
- Do not leave them alone.
Make sure there is nothing in the home with which they can hurt themselves, and do not leave them alone until you can find professional help for them.
If you are talking to an adult who confides that they are suicidal or having suicidal thoughts, it is also important to treat them with empathy and compassion. While adults are not held back by their brain development the way teenagers are, the fact is that it can be very easy for anyone to be consumed by depression, anxiety, and toxic stress. Middle-aged men are often at the highest risk for suicide. New mothers are also at high risk for postpartum depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts.
Idaho suicide statistics are several points higher than that of the national average. By being aware of the people in your life and staying connected, you can do a great deal to save someone's life. Compassion and empathy always go a long way, but if someone is suicidal or considering hurting themselves, the best thing you can do is get them some help. Depression and anxiety are as real as any other illness, such as cancer or diabetes, and only by talking about such mental health issues will we be able to raise awareness for and prevent suicide.
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255