"I didn't know," says Jessica as she wipes her nose with a tissue and huddles closer to her friends outside of the school. "He did seem really sad lately - and I mean, he said some weird things about finding the gun in his dad's house, but no one thought too much about it." Her friend Megan agrees. "Yeah, he was talking about his parents' divorce and things like that, but who doesn't?"
Although being a teenager can mean having some great moments, it can also mean having moments like Jessica's. Teenage suicide is becoming more common every year in the United States. In fact, only car accidents and homicides (murders) kill more people between the ages of 15 and 24, making suicide the third leading cause of death in teens.
As with anything else, it's important to know about suicide in order to prevent it, even if reading about it can be upsetting. Keep reading to learn about what puts a teenager at risk for suicide, the warning signs of someone who may be planning to commit suicide, and how to get help for yourself or a friend. You'll also learn what to do if you find yourself in Jessica's shoes and need to cope with the suicide of a friend or classmate.
Even though some adults in your life might not agree, being a teenager is not easy. You're stuck between being a kid and an adult - sometimes feeling like one or the other, depending on the day. You have new things to deal with socially and academically and new types of pressures. For even the happiest teenager, these years can cause anxiety and confusion.
And for teenagers who have additional problems to deal with, life can feel even more frustrating and difficult. Some teenagers have been physically or sexually abused, or have witnessed one parent abusing another at home. Many teenagers have parents who divorce, and others may have a parent with a drug or alcohol addiction. Some teenagers also suffer from depression, which can make their teen years that much more difficult. Failing at school can contribute to upset, angry, and depressed feelings for some teenagers.
Your teen years are also a time when sexual thoughts start to enter the picture, and this can be a source of anxiety or depression for teenagers who have homosexual feelings. Although these feelings can be completely normal for some teens, they may worry about what their families, friends, or classmates will say or think. Some teenagers begin drinking alcohol or taking drugs during these years, which can also make life more difficult.
Teenagers who have these kinds of problems aren't necessarily going to commit suicide, however. Many teenagers have supportive people around and positive ways to deal with their problems. Some can get help from their friends, family, teachers, psychologists, their places of worship, or other adults; some find an outlet for their feelings by doing something they love, like playing a sport or taking part in other activities. When a teenager has a good support system around, the risk of suicide drops quite a bit. But it's those teenagers who don't feel that they have anywhere to turn for help. They may think their lives aren't worthwhile. If a teenager feels unhappy and helpless and has no one to reach out to, it puts him or her at an increased risk for suicide.
Warning Signs: What to Look For
What Jessica and Megan said about their friend was telling: he had seemed sad and had been talking about his parents' divorce and finding his father's gun. And although they heard him say these things, they didn't really listen. This situation isn't that uncommon for teenagers - you're never expected to play the role of a doctor and listen to every little thing. But it's important to know the warning signs of someone who is thinking about suicide because knowing can save your life or the life of someone else.
Teenagers are most likely to think about committing suicide when there is some kind of trigger - some event or thing that causes something else to happen. Common triggers are a parent's divorce, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or the death of a friend or relative, for example. The warning signs to look for in yourself or a friend include:
- withdrawal from friends or family and no desire to go out
- inability to concentrate or think clearly
- change in eating or sleeping habits
- major changes in appearance (if a normally neat person looks very sloppy, for example)
- talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty
- talk about suicide
- talk about death
- talk about "going away"
- self-destructive behavior (drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or driving too fast, for example)
- no desire to take part in favorite things or activities
- the giving away of favorite possessions (like if someone offered you his or her favorite piece of jewelry, for example)
- suddenly very happy and cheerful moods after being depressed or sad for a long time (this may mean that a person has decided to attempt suicide and may feel like there's a "solution" to be happy about)
Pay close attention if a person talks about suicide. It's a myth that people who commit suicide don't talk about it beforehand - they often do talk about it and are likely to try it.
If you have been contemplating suicide, don't wait it out, hoping that your mood might improve. When a person has been feeling down for so long, it's hard for him to understand that suicide isn't the answer - it's a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Talk to anyone you know as soon as you can: a friend, a coach, a relative, a school counselor, a priest or rabbi, a teacher, or even a neighbor. Call your local emergency number, or check in the front pages of your phone book for the number of a suicide crisis line. These toll-free lines are staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by trained professionals who can help you without ever knowing your name or seeing your face. All calls are confidential - nothing is written down and no one you know will ever find out that you've called.
If you have a friend or classmate who you think is considering suicide, don't wait it out to see if he will feel better. Even if your friend or classmate swears you to secrecy, you must get help as soon as possible - your friend's life could depend on it. Often, a person who is thinking about attempting suicide isn't able to see that suicide is never the answer to his problems.
Although it is never your job to single-handedly prevent your friend from attempting suicide, you can help by first reassuring your friend, then going to a trusted adult as soon as possible. This can be a parent, grandparent or other relative, a coach, a priest or rabbi, a teacher, a school counselor, a neighbor, or a doctor or nurse. If necessary, you can call your local emergency number or the toll-free number of a suicide crisis line. However you go about finding assistance for your friend, you must involve an adult - even if you think you can handle your friend on your own, this may not be the case.
Sometimes even if you get help and adults intervene, a friend or classmate may attempt or commit suicide. When this happens, you may have many different emotions. Some teenagers say they feel guilty - especially the ones who felt they could have interpreted their friend's actions and words better. Others say they feel angry with the person who committed or attempted suicide for doing something so selfish. Still others say they feel nothing at all - they are too filled with grief. When someone attempts suicide, the people around him may feel afraid or uncomfortable about talking with him about it. Try to resist this urge; this is a time when a person absolutely needs to feel connected to others.
When someone commits suicide, the people around him may become very depressed and even think about suicide themselves. It's important to know that you should never blame yourself for someone's death - you could question yourself forever, which will only make you unhappy and won't bring your friend back. It's also good to know that any emotion you feel is appropriate; there is no right or wrong way to feel. Many schools will address the problem of a student's suicide head-on and call in special counselors to talk with students and help them deal with their feelings. If you are having difficulty dealing with a friend or classmate's suicide, it's best to make use of these resources or talk to a trusted adult. Feeling grief after a friend commits suicide is normal; it's when it begins to interfere with your everyday life that you may need to speak with someone about your feelings.
Reviewed by: Steve Dowshen, MD and David Sheslow, PhD
Date reviewed: March 1999
Source: KidsHealth www.KidsHealth.com is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida. Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children http://www.nemours.org/no/