Research indicates that suicide now ranks as the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, just behind homicide and auto accidents. It’s clear that responsible, caring adults need to be aware of and informed about this disturbing aspect of contemporary youth culture. The time has come to think carefully and systematically about what we can do as a society to turn back the tide of self-destructive behavior.
Experts point out that suicidal behaviors in young people are usually rooted in multiple social, economic, familial, and individual risk factors, with mental health issues playing an important role in the overall mix. To express it another way, suicide is the result of a “perfect storm” of complex, interrelated psychological problems, many of which are not under the victim’s direct conscious control.
The overwhelming majority of those who commit suicide have a mental or substance-related disorder which interferes with healthy cognitive processes and prevents them from coping normally with the stresses, strains and disappointments of life. In many cases clinical depression – a condition which is the result of a particular brain chemistry (usually low levels of serotonin) and which often has biological and genetic causes – is a determinative piece of the puzzle. Personal and family history, conflicts at home, lack of parental interest, various personality disorders, medical illnesses, and past abuse or trauma also figure significantly in the bigger picture. That’s not to mention the hormonal instability, dramatic impulsiveness, immaturity, and lack of experience that are typical of many adolescents and young adults.
It may be worth mentioning that there are some significant differences between the suicide rates for teen boys and girls. Girls, it seems, think about and attempt suicide about twice as often as boys. Boys, on the other hand, actually succeed in carrying out their intentions about four times as often as girls. That’s because boys tend to resort to more lethal methods, such as firearms, hanging, and jumping from heights, whereas girls are more likely to cut themselves or overdose on drugs.
As you’re aware, this problem has been on the rise over the past several decades. From 1952 to 1994 the incidence of suicide among adolescents and young adults nearly tripled. Fortunately, there has been a general decline in youth suicides since 1994. Nevertheless, national surveys of high school students during the 1990’s found an increase of reported suicide attempts requiring medical treatment. Translation: kids are still trying to take their own lives in record numbers – we’re just doing a better job of catching them in the act. Now we need to find ways to prevent them from resorting to such drastic measures in the first place.
While no one in the academic community has advanced a good theory explaining why adolescents are killing themselves at such an alarming rate, we would surmise that there’s a strong spiritual and philosophical dimension to this trend. To our way of thinking, the increase in adolescent suicide is, at least in part, an outgrowth of the secularization of modern society. It’s an expression of the hopelessness, malaise, and desensitization to the value of life that seem to characterize so many members of the up-and-coming generation. It’s part of the fallout of living in a world without purpose, without meaning, and without God.
What can be done about it? Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that can be implemented at the level of the local community. If you want to get involved, we suggest that you pull together a group of concerned friends who can find creative ways to raise public awareness of the problem. In many circles, suicide is a taboo subject – something we dare not talk about, since talking about suicide may have the unintended effect of encouraging suicide. This is a misconception. In actuality, the opposite is true: frank discussion and open airing of suicide-related fears, doubts and tensions is one of the best ways of preventing self-destructive behavior among young people.
With this in mind, we recommend that you and your friends take steps to initiate a dialogue with community leaders, pastors, teachers, parents, educators, public officials and representatives of local churches. See if you can persuade your local schools to organize a task force to address teen suicide in a pro-active fashion. Bring up the issue in meetings of parent-teacher associations. Encourage church youth groups to confront the problem head-on, possibly by bringing in speakers who are qualified to challenge teens in this area in the context of a Christian youth rally. Educate young people in the basics of the gospel and the Christian worldview, possibly by making use of Focus on the Family’s The Truth Project ® or the True U® video curriculum. If examples of adolescent suicide surface in the news, use them as opportunities to get people talking about ways of preventing a recurrence of such incidents in the future.
On the home front, do everything you can to help families in your community invest more time and effort in the process of developing strong family bonds and building open, communicative relationships with their teenage sons and daughters. Organize church-based family nights, father-son outings, and mother-daughter luncheons. Promote cross-generational interaction in your church’s Christian education program. Statistics indicate that a sense of parent-family connectedness is one of the most effective protections against suicidal behavior among young people; and while many parents don’t realize it, adolescents require every bit as much of Mom and Dad’s time and energy as toddlers.
For additional suggestions and further information you may want to get in touch with some of the following groups:
SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education);
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry;
The American Association of Suicidology; and
The Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program. If you think it might be helpful, you should also feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.
Suicide (resource list)
Focus on the Family’s The Truth Project