Sue Scheff: Teen Suicide


“I think the expectation most people have is that the act of suicide, whether it’s successful or not, is something that comes at the end of a long downhill slide…. when in fact, the study seems to be suggesting that for most people, it’s a very impulsive kind of thing that has not been thought about for very long at that particular occasion.”

– Paul W. Schenk, Psy. D., Clinical Psychologist

Brian was a drug addict. He stole to get high---wrecked cars----even went to prison. He says, “It didn’t matter what substance it was, it all brought me to the same spot…the misery, the wanting to kill myself, winding up in handcuffs.”

One day when Brian was high, he had a fight with his parents, and, on impulse, grabbed a gun.

His mom Patricia Cove says, “Somehow he got it, and wanted to show me that he was going to do whatever the heck that he wanted to do. Oh, it was awful. He had a gun and he was holding it in his mouth.”

In fact, many suicide attempts are snap decisions fueled by drugs and alcohol, according to new research in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

“For most people, it’s a very impulsive kind of thing that has not been thought about for very long at that particular occasion,” says Paul W. Schenk, a clinical psychologist in metro-Atlanta.

Half the people in the study attempted suicide after thinking about it for less than ten minutes. Brian says,“It’s a real scary dark place. It’s a real lonely place, and it definitely is selfish because you are just thinking about you the whole time, but it’s hard to consider other people when you are that miserable.”

The study shows---often there is no premeditated plan for parents to uncover. That’s why, if a child seems depressed---it’s important to ask.

Dr. Schenk says, “So I’d rather know that I had asked up-front, point blank, ‘Hey, you’ve been looking pretty depressed lately, sometimes when people get depressed, they think about killing themselves. I’ve wondered if you’ve thought that.’”

He says often the question can lead to healing. “What they will do is help get rid of the secrecy, and allow the person the opportunity to go, ‘Yeah, well things have been pretty bad, and I’ve thought about it,’” says Schenk.

Brian says, “I used to think that I would never get out of the hole that I had dug for myself….but I did.“

Warning signs that your son or daughter may be feeling suicidal include a sudden drop in grades, change in sleep patterns, drug or alcohol use, wrestling with issues of sexual identity, or having a family member who has previously committed suicide.

Tips for Parents

According to the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people 15 to 24 years old – just behind unintentional injury and homicide – and the sixth leading cause of death for 5- to14-year-olds. In addition, researchers at the Office of the Surgeon General have found that …

More teenagers and young adults die of suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined.

Americans under the age of 25 account for 35 percent of the population and 15 percent of all suicide deaths.

Important risk factors for attempted suicide in youth are depression, alcohol or other drug use disorder, and aggressive or disruptive behaviors.

Among persons aged 15 to 19 years, firearm-related suicides account for 63 percent of the increase in the overall rate of suicide.

The risk for suicide among young people is greatest among young white males; however, the suicide rates are increasing most rapidly among young black males.

Males under the age of 25 are much more likely to commit suicide than their female counterparts. The gender ratio for people aged 15 to 19 is 5:1 (males to females), while among those aged 20 to 24 it is 7:1.

The dramatic increase in the suicide rate among 10- to14-year-olds underscores the urgent need for intensifying efforts to prevent suicide among persons in this age group.

Why are the rates for teenage suicide so high? The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) says teens experience “strong feelings of stress, confusion, self-doubt, pressure to succeed, financial uncertainty and other fears” on their path to adulthood.

The AACAP also lists divorce, the formation of a new family with stepparents and stepsiblings, or moving to a new community as other common teen stresses that can be very unsettling and can “intensify self-doubts.” In some cases, teens consider suicide to be the only “solution” to the problems they feel are permanent conditions.

Suicide is a complex behavior relying on many factors. The Center for Disease Control says that the people most at risk for committing suicide are those with several of the following characteristics:

Have attempted suicide in the past
Have a family history of suicide
Have a firearm in the home
Consume alcohol and/or abuse other substances
Are depressed
Have experienced violence (physical, sexual, domestic or child abuse)
Are experiencing unusual stress due to adverse life events
Have spent time in jail or prison
Have a medical condition
Move frequently from one location to another
Experience poor parent/child communication
Feel socially isolated

According to the AACAP, parents should look for the following warning signs if they suspect their child may be considering suicide:

Change in eating and sleeping habits
Withdrawal from friends, family and regular activities
Violent actions, rebellious behavior or running away
Drug and alcohol use
Unusual neglect of personal appearance
Marked personality change
Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating or a decline in schoolwork quality
Frequent complaints about physical symptoms often related to emotions, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
Intolerance of praise or rewards

A teenager who is planning to commit suicide may also exhibit the following behaviors:

Complain of being a bad person or feeling “rotten inside”
Give verbal hints with statements, such as “I won’t be a problem for you much longer,” “Nothing matters,” “It’s no use,” and “I won’t see you again”
Put his/her affairs in order by giving away favorite possessions, cleaning his/her room or throwing away important belongings
Become suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
Show signs of psychosis (hallucinations or bizarre thoughts)
If one or more of these signs occurs, the AACAP suggests that parents need to talk to their child about their concerns and seek professional help if the concerns persist. People often feel uncomfortable talking about death. But asking a child if he/she is depressed or thinking about suicide can be helpful. Such questions may assure the child that someone cares and will give him/her the chance to talk about problems.

The following are some suggestions from the American Association of Suicidology concerning ways to help anyone who might be suicidal:

Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture on the value of life.
Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
Don’t dare him/her to do it.
Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.
Get help from persons or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
American Association of Suicidology
Journal of Adolescent Health
Office of the U.S. Surgeon General
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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