Loss from suicide affects us viscerally. With the intense emotions and drives that surround such a profound act, we agonize to comprehend the “why?” behind it. We try to formulate answers and assert blame to specific instances or moments, we try to create this path of understanding in an effort to make sense of it, but the reality is, we cannot. Suicide is an open-ended wound from which there is no closure.
In order to reduce the prevalence of suicide and suicide attempts in adolescents, we must first realize that SUICIDE IS PREVENTABLE. But what are the concrete steps we can take to truly impact the distressing increase in students attempting and committing suicide?
There have been troubling statistics surrounding the increase in youth experiencing mental health crisis and suicide attempts. Consider these facts, with the understanding that the very stigma surrounding this subject causes significant underreporting:
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24
- More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease, combined
- Each day in our nation, there is an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.
There are myriad statistics telling us that our adolescents are struggling to cope. As more and more youth utilize social media, seeking out validation and acceptance, they end up exposing themselves to far more than they anticipated. The exposure to ridicule, bullying and shaming is no longer devoted to just a few students in a group – it is done in front of an audience that can include the entire student body. This is especially troubling for our more vulnerable students who may not have the tools in place to protect themselves in a healthy, appropriate way. Social media taunting can perpetuate their negative view, driving them further into darkness. The repercussions are incredibly damaging. And with this exacerbation of social media, and while more boys die by suicide, death by suicide for girls has TRIPLED. This unrelenting, negative outlook brings about tremendous pain and a sense of hopelessness, which ultimately can drive a youth to attempt suicide. This is true of our high achieving students as well. The stress and strain can push a performance-driven student to the brink. Even more disturbing, the decision to do so is often an impulsive one.
Studies done by the University of Washington's Forefront show that 71% of suicide attempts happen within an hour of the decision, 48% of attempts happen within 20 minutes, and a staggering 24% of suicide attempts happen within five minutes. The extreme impulsivity of this act cannot be overstated and along with it our sense of urgency. The need to remove all potential dangers from an adolescent’s reach (guns/ammunition, alcohol, drugs and prescription medications) becomes even more vital. The fact is, SUICIDE IS PREVENTABLE; "…. 90 percent of those who fail in a suicide attempt do not end up dying by suicide," whereas, "…. 85 to 91 percent of firearm suicide attempts are fatal." "Individuals attempting suicide by this method do not have an opportunity to reconsider or halt mid-attempt."
“…. the urge to act is fairly short-lived, typically lasting a few minutes to a few hours. That’s why delaying access to a gun is critical; it allows time for the suicidal impulse to pass without being realized.” “Most people who attempt suicide don’t really want to die, they are just so overwhelmed by their emotions they feel unable to cope”. If we can recognize when a student has reached this point we may be able to avert the worst possible outcome.
Teachers are frequently the first adult a student reaches out to when struggling with a mental health crisis. Unfortunately, many teachers are not adequately trained to recognize and address such a crisis even though this unidentified issue may interfere with the student’s capacity to learn and participate fully in class.
Given the significant amount of time students spend in school, where mental health issues can often manifest, there is a strong focus on Suicide Awareness and Prevention. Educators should not veer away from having a conversation about suicide. They need to be willing to ask the difficult question and be prepared to get a difficult answer – knowledge that there is a problem may ultimately be the key to saving a life. The more light we can shed on issues of suicide and prevention, the more comfortable students in crisis may feel opening up to someone.
Educating those who work with youth on how to recognize the warning signs and effectively respond and being vigilant about reducing cyberbullying are central to the prevention of suicide. Educating parents and caregivers on how to ensure youth, who may be struggling, remain safe and away from guns, weapons, drugs and alcohol, will help to reduce the increasing numbers in suicide attempts. Teachers, coaches, counselors, school administrators, volunteers and community members who work with youth should consider taking a Youth Mental Health First Aid Training class or Suicide Prevention class. If we can recognize the signs, if we can help students in crisis get through an impulsive moment, give them empowering tools to help them cope……maybe we can save a few more lives. – Ed
Below are some resources to consider when working with youth in crisis:
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255