Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How Can we Prevent Teen Suicide?

One in four teenagers thinks about committing suicide, says Dr. James R. Varrell, MD, Medical Director of the Center for Family Guidance in New Jersey. I asked him about the warning signs and how parents can ensure that their children do not become a tragic statistic. There is a much higher percentage of girls who will have suicidal behavior, such as cutting oneself or taking some pills – things that are not so aggressive. More often than not they are looking for help. When boys attempt suicide, it tends to be more of a true attempt and it tends to be much more violent, such as shooting or hanging oneself.

There are three reasons why teens want to kill themselves. One is that they are so demoralized and depressed and they think that nothing will ever change and nothing they do can make a difference. They feel helplessness and hopelessness. The second reason is that they want to get even with somebody. It’s a very immature way to punish someone else. The teen will believe that others will realize how important she was and they’ll be sad for the rest of their lives. In adolescence there’s still a strong belief in what we call magical thinking. It’s like believing in Santa Claus – something that’s out of reality but we take it as true. They’ll be visualizing people at their funeral and there’s some sense that they’re going to be there. There’s also a lack of a sense of permanence with suicide. The third reason is purely to avoid some kind of consequence of their actions. I’ve seen kids try to commit suicide because they got pregnant and they don’t want to tell their parents. They don’t know how to cope and they think there will be such humiliation, embarrassment and disappointment, that suicide is a better option.

The are warning signs that parents need to watch out for. The first is depression, when kids start to change their behavior or withdrawal. They keep to themselves, their grades fall, they are over-eating or sleeping or under-eating or sleeping. They stop smiling and laughing and seem sad. Usually, they don’t show their parents depressed moods, they show them irritability. Parents will sometimes think it’s teenage angst when it’s really a depression problem. There is a high level of stress and expectation on children these days, particularly in more affluent areas where there’s a real push to perform.

If you see any of these signs, first, you need to talk to the child about whatever your concern is. You might get resistance initially, but you need to be ready for that. Say, “Hey look, I know that you don’t want me in your business, but I want to be supportive and I want to be sure things are cool. I don’t need to know everything you’re thinking, but as someone who loves and cares about you, I’m going to need to know that you are okay.” If the child breaks down in tears or gives you an indication that there’s a problem, you should get them into therapy. Keep at it until they talk to you.

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