As a matter of fact, research indicates a fairly close connection between teen suicide and substance abuse. The overwhelming majority of suicide victims of all ages have some kind of 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. Where drinking or drug addiction are brought into the mix with the symptoms of 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 – the situation is ripe for the development of dangerous self-destructive behavior.
It’s important to add that in 30 to 50 percent of teen suicide cases, substance abuse is a part of the event itself. In other words, a large number of teens who take their own lives do so not only while they are intoxicated but precisely because they are intoxicated. The irony here is that many of them resort to drinking or drug abuse as a way of escaping their emotional pain. Unfortunately, the intoxicating substance frequently produces the opposite effect: it actually increases the intensity of their depression. At the same time, it removes any inhibitions that may be keeping them from carrying out their desperate plans. It’s not surprising that the result is often tragic.
If you have reasons for believing that your child may be abusing drugs or alcohol – or if you even suspect that he may be moving in that direction – we’d encourage you to confront the situation positively and decisively. Remember, as parents you are uniquely positioned to act as a lifeline for your teen at a time when the pressures of adolescence are overwhelming him and obscuring his perceptions of the future. Raise some pointed questions about drug and alcohol use among his peers. Ask him directly if he’s ever been tempted to engage in substance abuse. Don’t criticize, express anger, assign blame or share personal anxieties at this point. Instead, be a source of unconditional love, compassion and support.
Meanwhile, you’ll want to be aware of and look for signs that could indicate that your adolescent might be clinically depressed. You should observe for behaviors such as painful introspection, negative self-concept, dramatic mood swings, episodes of moping and crying, withdrawal and isolation, fatigue and other unexplained physical ailments, poor school performance, and outbursts of anger and overt acting out. If these symptoms are present and persist for more than two weeks then you should seek appropriate help immediately. You may want to contact your physician for advice or a referral. Even if a present threat of suicide doesn’t seem to be part of the picture, you should still take definite steps to deal with the depression.
If you find that your child is already abusing drugs or alcohol, there are a number of places you can turn for professional assistance. We suggest you begin by seeking professional counseling for your teenager, and we highly recommend that you do this together as a family. The most successful treatment programs take a family systems approach that involves intensive evaluation and a series of counseling sessions offered in an environment of community and accountability. Call us. Our staff would be happy to provide you with referrals to programs of this nature or a list of qualified therapists in your area who specialize in treating substance abuse.
If the situation escalates, you may need to present your teen with a number of options. These might include entering an inpatient drug-treatment center, a halfway house, a boot-camp program or youth home, or staying with a relative or another family who is willing to accept him for a defined period of time. More extreme possibilities may need to be discussed as well, such as making your child a ward of the court or even turning him over to the police if he has been involved in criminal activity. If you continue to shield him from the consequences of his behavior or bail him out when he gets into trouble, he will not be motivated to change and you will be left with deep-seated anger and frustration.
Below are a number of other resources and referrals that should prove useful in your efforts to help your adolescent find healing and release from the bondage of substance abuse and the risk of teen suicide.
National Alliance on Mental Illness – 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
New Hope Telephone Counseling Center – 1-714-NEW-HOPE (639-4673)
Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program – 800-273-TALK(8255)
Grief, Trauma or Depression?