Suicide and the young

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Annan Boodram

By Annan Boodram – The Caribbean Voice (TCV)

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year olds globally. Moreover, it is estimated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that at least 25 attempts are made for every completed teen suicide.

Teenage years or adolescence in itself has been identified as a crucial period, considering the rapid changes as a part of the developmental phases itself, coupled with dealing with the transition from childhood into the next developmental phase of life, bringing with it inherent anxieties, and confusions regarding the formation of identities, dealing with relationships and their self-concepts. Within such a context, it is not surprising to understand the susceptibility of the youth towards experiencing high-stress levels.

Warning signs

Suicide among teens often happens after a stressful life event, such as problems at school, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a major family conflict. Adolescence is also a time of sexual identity and relationships and a need for independence that often conflicts with the rules and expectations set by others.

Young people with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or insomnia are at higher risk for suicidal thoughts. Teens going through major life changes (parents’ divorce, moving, a parent leaving home due to military service or parental separation, financial changes) and those who are victims of bullying are at greater risk of suicidal thoughts.

The following are warning signs of adolescents who may try to kill themselves:

  • Change in eating and sleeping habits;
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities: violent actions, rebellious behavior, or running away drug and alcohol use;
  • Marked personality changes, including  neglect of personal appearance;
  • Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, or a decline in the quality of schoolwork;
  • Frequent complaints about physical symptoms, often related to emotions, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
  • Not tolerating praise or rewards;
  • Talking about suicide or death in general including giving hints that they might not be around anymore;
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty;
  • Writing songs, poems, or letters about death, separation, and loss;
  • Giving away treasured possessions to siblings or friends
  • Engaging in risk-taking behaviors;
  • Having signs of psychosis (hallucinations or bizarre thoughts)
  • Refusal to talk;
  • Difficulty coping with stress or grief;
  • Self-mutilation through cutting, burning, and so on.

Role of family in preventing suicide

Some years ago a young man died in the streets. A sibling disclosed in the wake that the brother would occasionally spend time by her home as he was living in the streets. On that night the young man called his sister around two or three in the morning requesting to drop by her. She told him that it was very late and she needed to sleep, so he could drop by in the morning, as he knew where the spare key was kept. The next morning they learned of the suicide of the young man but told the public that he died by a drug overdose. That young man, who came from an affluent family and whose father was well known in the community, was in the streets because of differences with a parent.

Also, some years ago, a young lady, again from an affluent family, died by suicide.  Both her parents were highly qualified professionals whose college student daughter had apparently failed to maintain her straight A’s during the semester prior to her death. This apparently angered her parents who let their daughter know how they felt. This exchange was the trigger for suicide.

These two incidents highlight the fact that families often drive teens to suicide. Yet, given that that youngsters spend more time at home than anywhere else, families are in the best position to identify warning signs and seek help for at-risk members. In effect, parents must always be alert to what’s happening in the lives of their teenagers; they should always find out how their teenagers are doing and if anything’s bothering them.

Some adults feel that kids who say they are going to hurt or kill themselves are “just doing it for attention.” It’s important to realize that if teens are ignored when seeking attention, that may increase the chances of them harming themselves. Thus it’s important to see warning signs as serious, not as “attention-seeking” to be ignored. And in addressing any problems parents must not use language that would alienate their teenagers, make them feel unloved and unwanted, make them act in anger and/or haste, or make them feel, alone and lonely.

It’s important to try to keep the lines of communication open and express your concern, support, and love. If your teen confides in you, show that you take those concerns seriously. A fight with a friend might not seem like a big deal to you in the larger scheme of things, but for a teen, it can feel immense and consuming. It’s important not to minimize or discount what your teen is going through, as this can increase his or her sense of hopelessness.

If your teen doesn’t feel comfortable talking with you, suggest a more neutral person, such as another relative, a clergy member, a coach, a school counselor, or your child’s doctor.

Some parents are reluctant to ask teens if they have been thinking about suicide or hurting themselves. Some wrongly fear that by asking, they will plant the idea of suicide in their teen’s head. It’s always a good idea to ask, even though doing so can be difficult. Sometimes it helps to explain why you’re asking. For instance, you might say: “I’ve noticed that you’ve been talking a lot about wanting to be dead. Have you been having thoughts about trying to kill yourself?”

As well parents should not impose their views about how things should be on their teenagers since the issues parents faced when they were growing up and the environment of those times are not quite the same as what exists today. Among other things, parents have to work towards the following:

  • Cutting down, if not eliminating nagging and lecturing which generally causes children to stop listening to what is being said and to become resentful as well. Keep conversations brief, don’t repeat things too often and if necessary, develop a set of consequences with children so they take ownership for their behavior and actions and embrace the consequences;
  • Desist from interrupting when children are expressing themselves so they feel what they have to say is given value;
  • Do not be directly critical of children. If necessary enter into a discussion about behavior and/or actions and work with children to understand where they may have been wrong and what would be better options;
  • Do not keep dwelling on the past, as children need to know that they can start over with a clean slate. If a pattern develops then maybe have a supportive and caring family intervention;
  • Desist from trying to control children through guilt because this is a sure way to negatively affect relationships and children’s self-esteem as well;
  • Do not use sarcasm as this can have negative effects on children in many ways;
  • Work with children to help them solve their problems, instead of imposing solutions as this can lead to resentment. Offer guidance and scope for them to find solutions as children need to learn by themselves and know that they are capable and trusted;
  • Never put down children, even as a joke. This can lead to children feeling rejected, unloved and inadequate;
  • Never use threats as these can lead to children feeling powerless and resentful.

Seek  help

Concerning relationships, especially if pregnancy is involved parents must reach out for assistance to ensure that their teenagers are safe. Remember that ongoing conflicts between a parent and child can fuel the fire for a teen, who is feeling isolated, misunderstood, devalued, or suicidal. Get help to air family problems and resolve them in a constructive way. Also let the mental health professional know if there is a history of depression, substance abuse, family violence, or other stresses at home, such as an ongoing environment of criticism.

If your teen refuses to go to the appointment, discuss this with the mental health professional — and consider attending the session and working with the clinician to make sure your teen has access to the help needed. The clinician also might be able to help you devise strategies so that your teen will want to get help.

Remember also to never make excuses or pass the buck by blaming others – friends, girlfriends or boyfriends, other families and so on. Regardless of what they may or may not have done getting help for your child should be the focus, first, last and always.

The Caribbean Voice offers free counseling. Please email us at caribvoice@aol.com or thecaribbeanvoiceinc@gmail.com; WhatsApp 646-461-0574 or 592-621-6111. Also, check out our website at www.caribvoice.org

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