Trigger warning: This blog post contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or behaviour, seek help immediately. These help lines are open 24 hours a day:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
All of us at Enlighten have been heartbroken to see a number of media reports recently of teens taking their own lives. Cath Manning, one of Enlighten’s Victoria workshop presenters, is concerned about the high rates of depression and suicide in her area. Interviewed along with Steve Biddulph this week by her local media, Cath made this great point:
I think we sometimes forget that teen girls are going through the same things we went through when we were growing up, however, today there is even more pressure on them due to the relentless media images and messages they are bombarded with, and the added complications with social media. Of course, social media is here to stay, and there really are great benefits that come with that, but young girls just need to be given the tools to engage with the medium in a positive, helpful way.
Positive — that’s the key. There are positive things we can all do to help our kids cope. We can listen and look for the signs that all may not be well in their world, and we can offer our support. Due to the recent media coverage of teen suicides, a lot of parents and teachers have been asking my advice, so this seems a good time to share an excerpt from my book for parents, The Butterfly Effect, on how to identify and help teen girls in crisis. For the teen girls in your life, I have also written a version of the book specifically for them, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo. Both are available for purchase here.
Rage and Despair: Suicide
What many people who try to take their lives share is a sense of being trapped in a stressful or painful situation, a situation that they are powerless to change. Having depression or a mental illness raises a person’s risk of suicide. Stressful life events or ongoing stressful situations may fuel feelings of desperation or depression that can lead to suicide attempts. Examples of these stresses include the death of a loved one, divorce or a relationship breakup, a child custody dispute, settling in to a blended family, financial trouble, or a serious illness or accident. Any kind of abuse – physical, verbal or sexual – increases the risk. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can lead to suicidal feelings either directly or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.
Bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make teens try to take their own life. Also, teens are right in the middle of forming their own individual identities and a major component of that is their sexuality. For a teenager who is questioning their sexual preference or gender, the pressure to be like everyone else, the taunting they receive because they clearly are not, or their own guilt and confusion can become unbearable. A relationship breakup can be a trigger for suicide in some teens. As adults, we have the ability to look at the bigger picture and know that in years to come, a teenage breakup will not seem anywhere near as important as it does at the time. A teenage girl, on the other hand, may not yet have the maturity to see beyond the immediate pain. If she seems unduly distressed about a breakup, pay attention. Another trigger for teen suicide is the recent suicide of someone close to them, or the anniversary of a suicide or death of someone close to them, so these are times when girls may need extra support.
Suicide is hard to talk about. It is almost taboo, simply too painful to touch on. But silence can be deadly. Often the parents of a teen girl at risk of suicide do not ask her the tough question of whether she is planning to take her own life. In part they may be in a state of denial, which is only human – after all, no parent wants to imagine that their daughter feels suicidal. They may also have a fear that seems to be ingrained in our culture: that if they mention suicide to their depressed or distressed daughter, they will be putting the idea in her head. But experts in adolescent mental health agree that it is more than okay to speak directly to your daughter about suicide. ‘Parents are often worried that by asking they may make matters worse. Well, I have never known a child to suicide because someone asked whether they were thinking about it,’ says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Brent Waters.
Another unhelpful myth about suicide is that a teen who talks about suicide is simply seeking attention and won’t actually take her life. In fact, four out of five young people who commit suicide tell someone of their intentions beforehand. Besides, I have never understood the point of making a distinction between attention seeking, a cry for help or a genuine intention to commit suicide. Even if a teen is not actually going to go through with a plan to take her life, if she is distressed enough to cry out for help, her voice needs to be heard and she needs our support.
What you can do
Number one: if anyone – child, adolescent or adult – says something like ‘I want to kill myself’ or ‘I’m going to kill myself’, seek help straightaway. Remove anything they might be tempted to use to kill themselves with and stay with them. Dial 000 in Australia or 111 in New Zealand or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available 24 hours a day:
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
- Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
- Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Another valuable thing you can do to help someone you fear is having suicidal thoughts is to listen. These pointers are adapted from the Victorian Government’s excellent ‘Youth suicide prevention – the warning signs’ on www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au:
- Listen and encourage her to talk
- Tell her you care
- Acknowledge her feelings
- Reassure her
- Gently point out the consequences of her suicide, for her and the people she leaves behind
- Stay calm; try not to panic or get angry
- Try not to interrupt her
- Try not to judge her
- Don’t overwhelm her with too much advice or stories about your own experiences
Suicide warning signs
- Loss of interest in activities she used to enjoy
- Giving away her prized possessions
- Thoroughly cleaning her room and throwing out important things
- Violent or rebellious behaviour
- Running away from home
- Substance abuse
- Taking no interest in her clothes or appearance
- A sudden, marked personality change
- Withdrawal from friends, family and her usual activities
- A seeming increase in her accident proneness, or signs of self-harm
- A change in eating and sleeping patterns
- A drop in school performance, due to decreased concentration and feelings of boredom
- Frequent complaints about stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms that may be linked to emotional upsets
- Rejection of praise or rewards
- Verbal hints such as ‘I won’t be a problem for you much longer’ or ‘Nothing matters anyway’
- Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of being down, which may indicate she has made a resolution to take her life
(Heart image by Seyed Mostafa Zamani, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)