Food Storage & Other Adventures in Motherhood

Help for Teen Suicide

by heather

Yesterday I took care of an adolescent patient who had failed in a suicide attempt. As a pediatric nurse I have done this before. They come to our unit to be medically stabilized and then are transferred to the psych unit as soon as a bed is available. This is a part of my job. What is alarming to me is that I only work two shifts a month and I have had 5 patients like this in the past 6 weeks. (I work in a small town hospital.) When I was working full-time I used to see one, maybe two in a year. Why is this happening?! Why do so many kids suddenly feel like taking their lives is the answer? How can we stop this? From talking to my co-workers this is not just a local problem. The word is that teen suicide is sky-rocketing nationwide.  I look at these kids and I’m not sure if I want to hug them or smack them. Yesterday I sat down with my patient and explained that I understand that they were unhappy with school and family, but that killing or self-harm was not the answer. The answer is to get help. I wanted to say that I have been there, and I know exactly how it feels to live in a violent dysfunctional home and to feel like school is a miserable place without friends. But it would be unprofessional to bring up my own baggage with the patient, and I’m pretty sure that the patient wasn’t really listening anyway. I did say that life gets better after high school and this will be over soon. Of course I remember people saying that to me and although it was true, it wasn’t really helpful.

So what do you do? Teenagers often just don’t listen. What is the answer?  I don’t know all the answers. Why teenagers commit suicide is a complicated problem. I have noticed a few things that all of these kid had in common.

  1. Their parents were divorced, and it wasn’t a amiable sort of arrangement either.
  2. These kids felt unhappy  and unaccepted at school.
  3. These kids suffered from depression and low self-esteem.

I noticed that these kids’ parents were not only divorced, they were too wrapped up in their ‘bigger problems’ to take time to listen to their kids. (And many of these parents really did have big issues to deal with.) Not that I can necessarily fault them for that. If I were trying to support my kids on my income alone, I would definitely have to take on at least 2 jobs to make ends meet. And I know that many divorced moms have more kids than me and lower incomes. It’s hard to give your kids all the time and attention that they need when you’re exhausted, stressed and burned out. I can’t say that I could be doing better than they are. Basically home life was in some significant level of dysfunction, but sometimes as hard as it sounds, you just have to get over your own problems and give more than you think you can give to save your child, because that is what being a mom is about. (Also being divorced doesn’t necessarily mean that your child will be suicidal, but most of the time, divorce does make things harder for the kids.) If a child is physically or emotionally maltreated by a parent or care-giver, it quadruples their odds of having suicidal thoughts. Teenagers need to feel safe and loved.

Adolescence is a difficult time. For a teenager, what everyone else thinks of you is of vital importance. Simple comments can be devastating, especially to someone with a weak support system and issues with depression. If a child is bullied, whether face to face or via cyber-bullying it is even worse. One study of teenage suicide showed that more than 3/4ths of the kids in their study who took their own lives had been bullied. Bullying is another multifaceted problem, but I think that it’s really important for the adults around the teenagers to step in and let everyone involved know that that kind of behavior is not to be tolerated. And parents really need to be aware that it is going on. Ask your kid what is going on: how are they feeling and why. I don’t think I can emphasize how important it is to have open and effective communication with your adolescent.

Depression is yet another complicated part of this, a bigger part than I can address in this article. I think that it is important for parents and teachers to not dismiss it’s gravity. Nor should they ever use depression as a label that implies that the person is broken. The benefits of medication and/or therapy should not be ruled out. As far as my own personal experience is concerned, my family (and extended family) did not address mental health issues. That meant that we were admitting there was something wrong with us and no one was willing to do that. That was and still is a big part of why the dysfunction is perpetuated. And I’m pretty sure that this mentality applies to a lot of other people too. If you can’t admit that a problem exists, it is very unlikely that you’ll ever find a solution.

It seems like every kid I have seen in this situation is crying out for help. I don’t think that they’re thinking ‘cutting myself will make me cool’. It’s an immature way of dealing with their pain. They want to be loved at home. They want to be accepted at school. They want to feel like they matter to someone. They want to be happy.They want their parents to be consistent, someone that they can rely on. They want some to care about their day and their feelings and to appreciate them for who they are. They need to be taken seriously. They need their parents to step up and be good parents to them. (And I know, parenting can be a very hard thing, but if you don’t do it, who will?)

If you are suicidal, or you know someone who is suicidal call 1 800-273-TALK (8255). Or you can refer to or for more information and resources.

Has anyone else noticed this dramatic trend? Any theories?

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