Adolescent suicide

I keep a list of potential topics for my daily journal. From the beginning of my 40 day series of prayers for children, I have had a topic on my list that I have been avoiding. It is especially difficult for me to write for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that I have a lot of personal experience with the topic. I can cite statistics off of the top of my head. I know of dozens of cases in our community. I also know and respect families and will never tell their stories for them. Their pain is too deep to be invited by my journal. However, it is a topic that I also have committed myself not to avoid, so here goes.

Statistically the second leading cause of death among youth age 15-24 is suicide. Approximately one out of every 15 high school students reports attempting suicide each year. For each suicide death among adolescents, there may be as many as 100 to 200 suicide attempts. But those statistics don’t tell the whole story. A single youth suicide is too many. I’ve been to dozens of funerals. I’ve met families. I’ve seen the impact on the community.

The means of suicide in South Dakota are similar to the rest of the United States. Half of youth suicides are carried out with a firearm. Hanging is about 35 percent, poisoning 11 percent and the remaining 4 percent are a variety of different means. If you consider that the leading cause of death among adolescents is accidents, primarily automobile accidents, you can see that the actual rate of death by suicide might be considerably higher. In many automobile accidents, it is not possible to determine the degree of intentionality involved. Teens who engage in risky behaviors such as not wearing seatbelts, driving at high rates of speed and driving while impaired may be demonstrating suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

When a person dies, a lot of evidence is lost forever.

Researchers have interviewed teens who have attempted suicide and survived the attempt. There are many factors that influence teen suicidal behavior. Teens who have attempted often cite bullying as a factor. We don’t have enough information to be able to say that bullying causes suicide, but victims of bullying live with increased stress. Emotional victimization increases the risk of suicide. Teens are especially susceptible to bullying. As adolescents create emotional distance from their families of origin, they turn to peers for support and validation. When that support and validation are not present - and when bullying makes matters even worse - suicidal ideation and lead to action.

Depression is a mood disorder that increases the risk of suicide. Many brain disorders are undiagnosed in teens, so it is impossible to get accurate statistics about teen depression. All adolescents experience signs of depression, such as changes in sleep patterns, feelings of guilt, changes in energy levels, difficult with concentration, changes in appetite, reduced motivation and feelings of guilt. While there are effective treatments for depression, teens often don’t have access to mental health care and their symptoms do not lead to accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Other factors that increase suicidal ideation and behavior include domestic violence, and substance abuse. These conditions are underreported in teens.

Suicide frequently involves a reduced impulse control. There is strong evidence that youth suicide is the result of impulse. A suicide delayed is often a suicide prevented when teens are involved.

As is true with suicide death in general, the rate of teen suicide in South Dakota is higher than the national rate. Our teens are dying of suicide at a higher rate than the teens in neighboring states. This may be partially the result of a phenomenon called clustering. A suicide cluster is a group of suicide attempts that occur close together in time and geography. Suicide clusters appear to occur most frequently in teenagers and young adults. Researchers who study suicide sometimes speak of suicide contagion. One person’s suicidal behavior influences other persons to engage in suicidal behavior. We have witnessed clusters in our community with teens as young as 14. Although death by suicide is more common among male teens, cluster events seem to be more evenly distributed by gender.

Suicide cuts across lines of race and ethnicity and affects all segments of society, but in Rapid City and in South Dakota the rate of suicide is higher among American Indian youth than the general population.

Those are just the statistics, however. What the statistics don’t tell is the depth of pain and anguish caused by a suicide death. No parent should have to see the death of a child. All childhood deaths permanently affect the parents and siblings. Death by suicide strikes particularly deeply. On dozens of occasions I have sat with parents who have lost a child to suicide. On a few occasions it has fallen to me to give a parent that news. I have watched as grief literally disables a person and that person collapses onto the floor in uncontrollable sobbing. There is no consolation in those first moments of shock. The pain is just beginning. Those who are grieving a suicide death experience continuing pain. They find that they can think of little other than their loss. They suffer a wide number of symptoms including their own suicidal ideation.

While we have learned a lot about suicide prevention, resources are still scarce in our communities. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is a network of over 160 crisis centers providing services 24/7 with a single telephone number. There is training available for teens and for adults who work with teens for safe talk and applied suicide intervention skills training (ASIST).

God, you know the vulnerability of the teens in our community. You know the dark thoughts that inhabit their minds. Make of us sources of support and strength for those who are struggling emotionally, especially the teens of our community. Inspire us to action to increase the resources in our communities for struggling teens. We know that you never abandon your children. May we be as dedicated to their futures as you. Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!