8 THINGS I’VE LEARNED ABOUT TEEN SUICIDE (Whether I Wanted to Or Not)

I’m not a stranger to suicide. My mother’s first cousin took her own life, but the cause of her death was listed as an “accident.” I have some suspicions, but no one in my family wanted to talk.

Three days before my wedding to my ex-husband, his aunt took her own life. Didn’t know whether or not to cancel the wedding. We went ahead. (In retrospect, I should have cancelled the wedding. Period. But that’s another story for another time.)

My brother took his life on his thirtieth birthday. He stuck a hunting rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He died instantly.

And so began my journey to try to understand why 44,000 Americans — more than 5,000 of them teens each year — decide that life is not worth living. I wrote a book about teen suicide in the late 80s and now some three decades later have written a 2nd edition of Dead Serious: Breaking the Cycle of Teen Suicide.

  1. We can never know for sure why someone chooses to end his life. We can make educated guesses, read the research, talk to suicide survivors. In the end, we are left with questions that can never be answered.
  2. There is never just one reason why a young person takes her life. It’s not just the breakup with a boyfriend. Or academic problems. Or alcohol or drug abuse. Or issues faced by LGBTQ teens. Nope, experts say it’s some six to fifteen reasons why. (Not to be confused with the TV series “13 Reasons Why” which, by the way, has its faults but started a national conversation that will continue with the show’s second season.)
  3. Talking about suicide does not make matters worse. What makes matters worse is not taking. That may sound counterintuitive. But more than anything someone struggling with suicidal thoughts wants someone to listen, to show that they care.
  4. It is never your job to save someone from taking his/her life but to connect with a mental health professional who has the training and expertise to help someone who is considering suicide. It’s easy to offer up suggestions but, in the end, most of us are not qualified to take someone’s life in our own hands. I don’t know about you, but I never took a class in suicide prevention and, even if I did, chances are it would have pulled at my heartstrings but would not have made me any more capable of coaxing someone back from the edge of the abyss.
  5. It is your job to break the code of silence if a friend or child or student tells you not to share his feelings. It is always better to have someone angry with you than not to have that person around at all.
  6. Recognizing the warning signs of potential suicide is essential. This is not always easy with teens who can be moody and uncommunicative. Still, it’s important to be on the alert and to notice changes in behavior: eating, sleeping, social habits. And it’s crucial to plug into even more serious warning signs like a teen giving away his possessions, writing a will, crawling into a deep depression or severe anxiety, and an obsession with death.
  7. There are many myths out there about suicide. One of the most prevalent is that when a teen (anyone) talks about suicide they are just looking for attention. The truth is that most teens who take their own lives do talk about it. They make open threats that, sadly, are too often ignored.

Myth: Once a teen decides to take her own life, no one can stop her.

Truth: Even the most hopelessly suicidal person has mixed feelings about death. With help, even that person can be stopped and coaxed toward life.

Myth: Once a teen tries to kill herself, the pain and shame will keep her from trying again.

Truth: Of every five people who take their own lives, four have made one or more previous attempts. And of all teens who attempt suicide, one in three tries again.

The importance of a loyal friend — a connection — who will be there no matter what can make a big difference between a teen deciding to choose life instead of the alternative.

If you’re an older person like me, you’ve sung along with James Taylor a million times as he offered up his wistful version of “You’ve Got A Friend”. The lyrics are as relevant now as they’ve even been.

“Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have

to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,

you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.”

“You’ve Got A Friend” — James Taylor

Award-winning author/journalist. Books about teen suicide, siblings, men and women during WWII. Me? Getting older & wiser.