Recently I spoke to a group of more than 100 teenagers and met them (with pizzas!) at a nearby church. When one of the teens asked during Q&A what topic I was currently writing about, and I said a book on suicide, the room fell silent.
Once we’d broken the silence on suicide, the teens shared their experiences, questions and concerns. Their candor was heart-rending.
I later learned that one of the students had recently lost a cousin to suicide. And a nurse was at the church with the group because two other students were on suicide watch.
Let’s open the dialogue with our teens. Let’s nourish their bodies and souls. I consider suicide an illness where prevention is the only acceptable treatment.
Teens have routine checkups with their doctors and dentists, but they need mental health checks, too. A great place to start is with something as simple as a “systems check.”
My wife, Nancy, and I used the acronym HALT to train our kids to pause when they were agitated. They had to ask themselves if their emotions—frustration, anxiety, sadness—stemmed from being Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. With HALT, they were able to identify the root of their feelings, if the solution was as simple as meeting basic needs.
Angst or depression?
It can be difficult to distinguish typical teen outbursts and mood swings from signs of major depression and suicidal thoughts, so trust your gut. You know your children best. Err on the side of caution.
Here are some behaviors to watch for with your teens. Are they:
- developing irregular eating habits?
- having more frequent anger outbursts?
- self-isolating or consistently choosing electronic communication over in-person fellowship?
- chronically tired or worn down?
If these behaviors arise, pursue low-stress opportunities to spend time together, ask questions and seek outside help.
Time for sleep
The importance of sleep and an unburdened schedule—even from social media—cannot be overstated. Because of constant digital communication and the fear of missing out, many teens never get more than a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Defend your children’s opportunity for rest.
First, turn off or sequester their electronic devices at night. In addition, we limited our teens’ extracurricular activities and offered “mental health” days. They consisted of a full day each week for them to be free from homework, shopping and chores. The practice of daytime rest encouraged their mental health.
Then we were on the lookout for these signs:
- sudden changes in friendships
- dropping favorite activities
- deterioration of personal hygiene
- weight loss
- expressing hopeless, helpless thoughts
- rapid decline in grades
While such changes may be part of normal teenage angst, they should prompt parents to observe closely, ask meaningful questions and give sincere offers to help.
Understand the scope
An unprecedented number of teens have thoughts about killing themselves, which is known as suicidal ideation. Many parents first hear of suicidal ideation from the parents of their teen’s friends. If other parents report red flags, don’t brush those off. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among children between ages 10 and 17 in the U.S.—and the leading cause of death among 13-year-olds.
In the 20 years preceding the pandemic, hospital emergency departments experienced a 92% increase in visits for suicide ideation and attempts for children. And while the impact of COVID-19 is not fully known, a 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the proportion of pediatric emergency admissions for mental health issues was up 31% for adolescents over the previous year. And often their parents didn’t know their teen was at risk.
Recognize the biblical worldview
Since famed sociologist Émile Durkheim’s study more than a century ago, my review of the literature indicates that faith plays a protective role. Believers in God are between four and six times less likely to commit suicide as those who don’t believe.
From Genesis to Revelation, God’s message is clear: He is for life. Satan is for death. Jesus didn’t die on the Cross so that we could take our own lives. He died so we can have life abundantly. Our teens need to know they have this hope.
Is your teen at risk?
The time between when a teen thinks about suicide and takes action can be less than five minutes. Avoidance is not the answer. Your teen may be at risk. Ask if he or she is thinking about self-harming, keep the suicide prevention helpline nearby —800-273-TALK (8255)—and call 911 if your teen is actively suicidal.