– by Walt Mueller
©1998, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
My daily habit of scanning the obituary page of our local paper continues to confirm the sad and frightening fact that hopelessness and its most extreme expression are far too common among the teen population in North America. Consequently, I’ve spent lots of time thinking about teen suicide.
The National Youth Suicide Prevention Center in Washington, D.C., reports that every hour of every day 228 teenagers in the United States will attempt to take their own lives. That’s two million teenagers a year! Between 6,000 and 20,000 teens will “succeed.” Teens of every socioeconomic group, geographic area and type of family situation have become statistics. George Gallup concludes that one-fifth of our teenagers should be considered at high risk for suicide. He says, “The entire teen population should be viewed as at least potentially at risk, given the normal stresses of adolescence and the added pressure of modern-day society.”
Teenagers who commit suicide don’t do it because they are fully intent on dying. Rather, it is the result of an emotional tug-of-war between life and death that is fought out in their minds. In an effort to escape the reality of a painful existence many teens choose death, not because they want to die, but because they want to get away from life. Before jumping to his death in a quarry, Marc left this tape-recorded message: “C’mon heart, stop … stop keeping my physical body alive. That’s all I wanna know, that I’m not alive … I just don’t like life, man. I’m goin’ nowhere.” Melissa wrote in her note, “I know it’s gonna hurt. But after death I know there is a better life.”
Uncovering the “whys” isn’t always easy. While there is no one cause for teen suicide, experts recognize that in most situations some combination of three factors is present: 1) a previous history of problems; 2) problems associated with adolescence; and 3) a precipitating event. While the reasons are complex, the recent Gallup poll on teen suicide found that among those who had attempted suicide or come close to attempting suicide, the overwhelming reason for considering this drastic action is “family problems” or “problems at home.”
Situational family factors beyond anyone’s control can contribute to adolescent stress, depression and suicide. For example, many teens who attempt suicide have lost a parent to death before reaching the age of 12 or had a parent become chronically ill during the child’s early teen years. But there are family factors that are preventable. Nearly three-quarters of all suicide attempters come from unstable family situations characterized by divorce, separation, talk of divorce, fatherlessness, substance abuse, isolation or lack of support.
While observers might understand why a child from a terrible home situation would try to take his or her own life, family, friends and neighbors of suicidal upper- and middle-class kids from seemingly healthy homes are often left looking for answers.
Answers, like the problems, are often complex. But here’s a simple fact that should get us all thinking: One of the main precipitating factors in teen suicide is a lack of time spent with one or more parents and the resulting feelings of abandonment. Kids interpret lack of time or intimacy as rejection. Most of the teenagers who attempt suicide claim they can remember no adult to whom they ever felt close. Some kids point to the lack of a loving father figure in the home. In many of these cases, the father has been physically present but emotionally detached and unwilling to interact or provide spiritual direction. In other cases one or both parents have been hypercritical.
Angela’s poem, “Lonely,” expresses the deep sense of loss teens feel when they’re emotionally abandoned at home:
I can hear you talking, your voices carry on to me, and yet it’s really only echoes of long ago, when you noticed me
I have done so many things that you should be proud of, but I don’t think you ever acknowledged them or their meaning
So now I shall dwell in my world where only escape will rest me here …
One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is our time. Time together fosters openness on their part and unclogs the lines of parent-teen communication.
Our children need our time and undivided attention even when no obvious crisis exists. In fact, this is one of the best suicide prevention strategies. If we only give them our attention and time when they are depressed or after they make an attempt on their life, we might actually reinforce the negative behavior and encourage more of the same. Our kids need our time all the time!
I recently attended a program on teen suicide sponsored by a local high school that had experienced three student suicides in a matter of just two months. Seated in the center of the room were a number of “suicide survivors,” the relatives of young people who had taken their own lives. After the presentation, one of these survivors, the mother of a young man who had killed himself, raised her hand and addressed the crowd. Her simple words to everyone: “Just be there for your kids.” For her, it was too late. Her tearful straightforward plea was powerful. It’s more evidence of the fact that our kids want and need our time.
Teenagers who commit suicide don’t do it because death is attractive. Rather, the ugliness of death is more attractive than their experience of life. Suicide has become the extreme and final expression of deep hopelessness. A suicidal person is a person who has no hope. The only true source of hope is Jesus Christ. Are you pointing them to that source of peace that passes all understanding? It takes time.
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