The objective of this article is to make some suggestions as to the general profile of adolescent boys and girls who may attempt or succeed at committing suicide.
By: Susan Adams, M. Ed.
Summary: Adolescents experience great turbulence on their way to adulthood. One of the hallmarks of their adolescents is the outlook that whatever they are experiencing will last forever. They fail to see events as transient. With this kind of vulnerability, teens are at great risk for suicide, especially if they lack good family support. The teens that fall into this category, generally speaking, have experienced emotional abandonment by one or both parents. They may, in addition, be involved with alcohol or drugs. These chemicals increase depression and alter judgment.
The statistics are startling! Every yer, one researcher estimates, about 400,000 young people from age l5-24 attempt to commit suicide. Over 4,000 of them succeed. More young people die as a result of accidents and cancer however, suicide is the third largest cause of death among adolescents. Some experts believe this number is even higher as the accidents may masquerade in some cases for suicides that are disguised or concealed by the family. Among college students, suicide is the second major cause of death.
Adolescence is considered the period between the ages of l2 and 20. However, early maturation sends some children into adolescence earlier. It is a period of rapid growth and development in all aspects of life–physically, socially, sexually, and emotionally. For some teens it is a time of particularly intense turmoil, rebellion, confusion, and disturbance. This explains why teens can be so difficult to deal with and why so many teenagers have so much trouble dealing with themselves.
In a very few years these young people must become adjusted to the world, establish their sexual identity, and become free and independent. Dealing with all these factors, it is not surprising that adolescents are subject to depression. Normally, adolescents swing from one emotional extreme to another. They provoke and test parents and society, may be irrational and impulsive. They are susceptible to peer pressure and are likely to imitate their friends and classmates. Though, when pressured, many teens may turn to suicide, the research shows that actual completed suicides are more common among older people. It is important to take any suicidal gesture seriously even though it has been shown that when a teenager attempts suicide it is more often an unconscious cry for help in solving some problem that appears hopeless and urgent at the time.
The best response to such a gesture is the family “suicide watch” where family members take turns around the clock sitting with the suicidal adolescent-not leaving him or her alone for any seconds to show how valuable the family finds this person and how intolerable the suicide would be. This is in addition to finding competent help in the way of therapy for the teen and for the family and following that professional’s advice.
So what is the profile for suicidal teenagers? Researchers have pointed out that the typical suicidal boy has, before the age of l6, suffered separation from his father through death, divorce, or some other reason. Or, even if there was no separation, the father-son relationship was distant and inadequate. In either situation, the neglected boy has feelings of rejection and anxiety. In short, he is facing manhood without an adequate role model for becoming a man. The transition is even more terrifying for him than for his peers who have adequate fathering. Finding other role models who are male in the family or out of the family if needed would help.
The typical suicidal teenage girl has been said to have a self-centered mother and a weak father. Boyfriends are turned to as a substitute for the father but an immature boy cannot help enough, causing the girl to feel even greater rejection. As a result, she may make an attempt on her life. Fathers, in both gender cases, are extremely important. The help of extended family should be solicited, if possible.
This does not mean that all teens in such families are suicidal. Actually, there are a whole range of factors that increase the likelihood of teen suicide. For one thing, the suicide potential of a depressed person, teen or not, is high, even though the majority of depressed people don’t suicide.
Depressed people believe that “nobody” understands how they feel. They may develop a pressing need to escape such crippling distress as just before thew suicide attempt, time seems elongated. They can’t believe that the state is really brief and suicide seems the only way out. Chemically, there is no substance in the brain left (serotonin) that promotes optimism.
Also, today there is an ever increasing use and abuse of alcohol by teens and this complicates the problem. Drinking is a big factor in suicides. Alcohol makes its users more depressed. If one has a bad day, it is usually possible to block it out with something uplifting. However, the use of alcohol or drugs exaggerates the negativity and also affects judgment. Impulsively and loneliness are also factors in teen suicide. The loneliness may come with the first attempt to leave home-often to college.
Given the profiles, it is of prime importance for family members to keep the lines of communication open with their children. The training for adolescence begins at birth. This means enjoying your children without trying to perfect them, discussing how we decide how to make the correct decisions, and by using logical consequences with children rather than punishment. The idea is to teach children that adults make good coaches rather than good punishers. We don’t want children to hide from us. We want them to bring their problems to us so that we can help them to find good solutions.