See The Signs

 – by Walt Mueller
©2005, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

Even though it’s been two years since I saw it happen, its impact on me is still strong. I was sitting in the stands at a Good Charlotte concert with a raucous crowd of young fans. At one point in the concert, the band stood on stage and asked for the houselights to be brought up. After quieting the 10,000 teens in the room, they calmly asked, “How many of you here have ever considered or attempted suicide yourself, or know someone who has taken their own life?” I stood in stunned silence as what looked like every hand in the room went silently and slowly up in the air. It was a powerful encounter with a dark cultural reality. Then, after the young quintet of punk rockers told the crowd that suicide is a road they should never travel, they launched into their hopeful anti-suicide anthem, “Hold On.” I had a difficult time listening as my eyes kept scanning the crowd of young people in the room.

That moment has come back to me whenever I read, hear about or discuss a teen suicide. Sadly, that’s been far too often. While there’s no way to really know just how many kids are pondering suicide, the Center for Disease Control tells us that suicide is the second leading cause of death (behind accidents) among 15-19 year-olds. In the United States, one teenager takes his or her life every 100 minutes. It’s recognized that this statistic is far too conservative as many teen suicides aren’t reported as such. What is known is that there’s been an alarming and steady rise in suicide among younger children and teens.

I don’t know Phil, but the brief story he tells on his Web site offers another reality check. “My name is Phil and last year I lost my son to suicide. He was only 17. If you were like me … chances are you don’t know anything about suicide or noticing the warning signs … I know that I didn’t … but I do now. My wife and I have put this site together for both adults looking for some information on how to prevent this from happening to their children, and also for other teens looking for help.”

Because I’m a father, I find Phil’s words somewhat haunting. One day his son was there. The next day he wasn’t. I can’t even imagine. For whatever reason, Phil didn’t see it coming. Because he was blindsided, Phil’s trying to help other parents not miss what he missed.

I’m sure Phil’s ignorance is admittedly shared by the great majority of parents who have experienced his same horror. One loving and involved Christian parent described to me what it was like for them after their 13-year-old son took his life. The young man had endured a horrible breakup along with a change in schools before slowly getting depressed. The parent says, “We were frogs in boiling water and missed the signs of the rising temperature. No one ever thinks suicide will happen to them—we thought we were dealing with the highs and lows of a budding hormonal teen.”

Sometimes it’s the things right under our noses that we so easily miss. This parent’s words are words we should all hear and heed. The parents deeply loved Christ and their son. They were active in his life. The signs were there. But still they were missed.

One of the most memorable moments of the 1992 Summer Olympics occurred when Britain’s Derek Redmond was sprinting around the track in the 400-meter run. As Redmond sped around the backstretch, his right hamstring tore. How did you and I know he was hurt? He showed us. He stopped running, limped a few steps and fell to the ground. His face contorted in response to the physical pain he was feeling. He grabbed his leg and rolled around on the ground. Those who were in close proximity heard him scream out in agony. We knew he was hurt because he told us not in words but through his actions. His physical pain was obvious to anyone who was watching.

Teenagers who attempt suicide give signs. About 80 percent of those who take their lives communicate their intention to someone prior to the act. While they may not always communicate their pain and intentions with verbal clarity, the signs are there. But they may never be heard unless we know what to watch for. Experts say there are five categories of signs teens give when contemplating or before attempting/committing suicide. No, they’re not all there all the time. But some signs will most likely be present. Carefully read through the descriptions of these signs, realizing that they will usually appear in some combination before a teenager acts on their thoughts.

Emotional signs

Teenagers, by nature, can be moody. But not all of their moody behavior should be written off as just a part of the adolescent stage. There are several unusual and extreme emotional cries for help that can clue us in to our teenagers’ struggles with hopelessness, depression and suicidal feelings.

The first emotional cry can be heard in the classical signs of depression. (See sidebar below.) If these symptoms continue for two or more weeks, then it is time to seek help.

Withdrawal from normal activities is a second emotional cry. When a teenager suddenly separates from friends, family, objects and activities that are normally a large part of their life, trouble may be brewing. Depressed and suicidal teens may want to spend more time than usual alone or in their room.

The calm before the storm occurs when a teen’s spirits improve suddenly and dramatically after a period of deep and extended depression. Psychologists say this is a very dangerous time since the teen’s “peace” may actually exist because the decision has been made to take their life. They are excited because they feel like they have finally found the solution to their problems and the pain will soon be over. Parents should be very cautious when a teen who has a history of depression appears to be dramatically and suddenly improved.

Physical signs

Sometimes an observant eye is all it takes to tell that a teen is depressed or suicidal. Here are some physical cries you can hear by being aware of your teen’s physical demeanor and day-to-day habits.

Physical complaints are sometimes heard from teens who experience depression and suicidal thoughts. Stomach aches, headaches and constant fatigue are a common occurrence among teens who are finding adolescence and the pressures of their life too much to handle.

A neglect of physical appearance, characterized by sloppiness and poor personal hygiene could be a way of saying, “Why should I bother? Nobody cares about me anyway.” Teens who feel worthless sometimes begin to look worthless.

A change in normal eating and sleeping habits is also a sign of trouble. Suicidal teens will sometimes sleep more, eat less and even develop an eating disorder.

Finally, body language that shows an inability to concentrate can be a sign that a child is preoccupied with depression and problems. Slouching, staring off into space and constant daydreaming may occur when the pain of what is going on inside drowns out an awareness of what might be happening in the same room.

Behavioral signs

Teens who struggle with depression and suicide sometimes decide to become involved in some strange and frightening new behaviors.

Accident proneness can become a conscious or unconscious attention-getting device for teens who desperately want someone to notice them. Teens who feel shut off from others find the attention they receive after an accident to be a form of immediate reinforcement. These cries for attention can also be cries for help.

Acting out or other melodramatic behavior is another common attention getter. I remember one girl who always acted like the world was coming to an end. When she felt her friends were starting to ignore her, she would quickly step on stage and respond like a terrible actress to some new crisis that she had thought up. It didn’t take long for her friends to catch on to her act. As her fantasy world came crashing down, she would move on to a new circle of friends who would respond in the way she wanted. Sadly, this was a cry to be noticed, loved and cared for by a girl whose father had emotionally rejected her, leaving her depressed and feeling worthless.

A preoccupation with violence and unusually aggressive behavior are clear signs something is wrong. Some suicidal teens will fight, yell, break things and throw objects during increasingly frequent fits of rage. Some will be mesmerized by video game, movie and television violence, renting and viewing violent films. Others will purchase or attempt to build weapons.

Self-destructive behavior and involvement in dangerous activities are signs that a teen may have little or no regard for his or her personal safety or life. Many suicidal teens will live life on the edge by driving fast, playing dangerous games with weapons, or playing chicken with their cars and bikes. Any sort of high-risk activity of this type merits attention.

Promiscuous sexual behavior is often an attempt to sedate strong feelings of failure and depression. Kids who see themselves as worthless, unloved and rejected will look for acceptance and love through sexual intimacy.

Drug and alcohol abuse is another factor contributing to suicide. While their abuse appears to contribute to suicide by aggravating and exaggerating depressed feelings and suicidal tendencies, their use can also point to the presence of depression and suicidal feelings.

Sudden rebellious and disrespectful behavior towards parents, teachers and other authorities may indicate that a teen has decided to take their fate into their own hands rather than listen to the wisdom and advice of those they may have respected at one time.

A drop in grades and increased truancy are not uncommon when a teen is preoccupied with so many problems that they find it impossible or undesirable to care about schoolwork.

Teens who are thinking about killing themselves will sometimes become preoccupied with death. They may write poetry or stories focusing on death or other morbid themes. Their musical tastes may change and lean toward an interest in genres of popular music that glamorize occult themes, hopelessness and death. Their preoccupation with death may even lead them to dye their hair and dress in black.

Preparing for death is a clear sign that a teen has decided to commit suicide. Many teens who have made the decision will begin to give away valued personal items to close friends or family members. They will say good-bye and take care of other personal business. And they will acquire the means by which they intend to kill themselves (rope, gun, pills, etc.).

It seems strange that this last behavioral cry has to be mentioned, but the fact that many parents don’t hear this loudest of all screams warrants its inclusion. A suicide attempt should not be brushed off lightly. As Dr. Walter Byrd of the Minirth-Meier Clinic says: “Any suicide attempt should be taken seriously … whether the attempt was a determined effort to end one’s life or rather an act carried out in desperation to provoke the involvement of others in a help-giving model.”

Situational Signs

Researchers and counseling professionals have noted numerous unpleasant life changes that affect teenagers more deeply than any other group of people because of the difficult developmental stage at which teens find themselves. These events might precipitate feelings of failure, loneliness, depression and suicide. One study found that among those who attempted suicide, nearly 76 percent reported having recently experienced one or more of these changes.

A teenager might commit suicide after losing friends and social status following a family move from one community to another. Other situations include a romantic breakup, death of a friend or loved one, divorce, or academic failure. Parents should be especially sensitive to the emotional needs of their teenagers during these times of personal crisis. Sometimes we falsely assume they will be able to adapt to change as well as we can.

Verbal Signs

Parents who listen to their children might be alerted to suicidal intent by the words they hear from their children. A child who says things like, “I won’t be a problem for you much longer,” “Nothing really matters anymore,” “It’s no use,” “I won’t see you again” or “I’d be better off dead” is saying they may have already decided their fate.

Some people have speculated that people who talk about suicide won’t ever commit suicide. Don’t believe it. It’s only a myth. Most suicidal acts are preceded by some warning or cry. All of those cries and warnings should be taken seriously.

When Derek Redmond fell to the track in pain during the 1992 Summer Olympics, an amazing thing happened. As he stood up and began to hobble around the track in an effort to finish the race, his father came out of the stands, rushed past security guards, came to his son’s side and embraced him. With his son’s head buried in his shoulder and the crowd cheering, Jim Redmond led his son around the track to the finish line. It was learned later that when Jim Redmond came to his son’s side, he told him, “We’re going to finish this together.”

When our children and teens cry out in pain during the difficult years of adolescence, we must listen, drop everything, rush to their sides, help them up, support them and tell them we will work with them to get through the difficult race that lies ahead … together. And as we walk, our talk must point them to the only One who gives the only hope that can lead them to “hold on.” He’s the one who says to us all, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” He’s the one who gives new life.

Common signs and symptoms of adolescent depression

  • Persistent sadness
  • Fluctuation between silent apathy and excited talkativeness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Withdrawal from friends or family
  • Complaining about headaches or stomach aches
  • Severe weight gain or loss
  • Declining grades and an unwillingness to work in school
  • Truancy
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Lack of interest in regular activities (sports, church, music lessons, youth group, etc.)
  • Pessimism about the future
  • Expressions of helplessness, worthlessness, hopelessness
  • Preoccupation with death or suicide

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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.