School is back in session and the problems of children and teenagers come to greater attention for parents. The myth of childhood being a carefree and universally happy time has largely been disproved. Parents have grown more aware of the difficulty, especially of the teenage years. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teenagers following motor vehicle accidents and homicide. The absolute numbers are not large-about 1800 deaths per year for children aged 10 to 19-but they represent a much larger problem. First, and most essentially, these are PREVENTABLE deaths as depression is a highly treatable problem. No statistics are kept on suicide attempts but many more children make suicide attempts or gestures than actually die. Estimates are that 8 to 12 times as many teenagers attempt suicide as commit suicide. An even broader number encompasses those teenagers who have thoughts of suicide or wish they were dead but don’t actually take any action. These teenagers also deserve our attention as they are suffering and deserve attention, compassion and help.
I see many teenagers in my work as a psychologist and a large percent report thoughts of suicide or minor attempts (usually drug overdoses) of which their parents are completely unaware. Parents usually bring teenagers for help because of problems with grades and achievement or because of defiant and hostile behavior toward their families. A large percentage of the time depression is the underlying cause of the problem. In modern society is is so hard for teenagers to admit to anxiety or fear of failure. We live in a time of great bravado and posturing. To be accepted, teens have to be cool, unconcerned about what their parents think, tough and invulnerable.
In fact, this is a VERY vulnerable time of life. No longer children, they are expected to spend their time working toward future goals, to stop being frivolous and carefree. Common parental cries are, “grow up” or “stop acting so immature.” Time is expected to be devoted productively to achievement-at school, in sports, socially. Not yet adults, teenagers have little freedom to make their own choices about many areas of their lives. There is a lot of pressure on teens to plan their future, do well in school, avoid drugs and alcohol, make the right kind of friends, perhaps get part time jobs to help their struggling families. When we are teenagers we feel the most insecure about our appearance, our sexuality, our prospects for the future, our social acceptability with peers. Vulnerable teens; those who are naturally more shy, anxious, unassertive or indecisive can easily feel like they are failing at life. They are the most easily lured by the seduction of drugs and alcohol to diminish those fears and substance abuse in turn can lead to falling behind in school and greater failure.
Sex is a strong biological drive in adolescence but it is an area fraught with stress. For boys, the pressure is to be tough and masculine, to deny their need for emotional intimacy. The push to be a sexual player can deprive them of their strong need to connect emotionally, teaching them to be cold and uncaring, and lonely. Homosexuality often emerges as a clear choice in adolescence and while society is becoming more tolerant in general many youths discovering their homosexual feelings face social or family rejection. Girls often feel pressured to be sexy to be uncaring and casual about sex, to not take it seriously. The Center for Disease Control reports that 8% of high school students report being forced to have sex, 11% of girls. 20 to 25% of college women report experiencing rape or attempted rape. Estimates are as high as 33% experiencing suicidal thoughts after rape. When teenagers do form close and caring relationships they are often not taken seriously by their families who may pressure them to not get “tied down” or dismiss “puppy love.” Teens, just like adults, may experience their greatest risk of depression and suicidal thoughts when a relationship breaks up. Well meaning parents may not treat the breakup with the compassion it deserves, dismissing it as lacking in significance.
Hearing a teenager say, “I wish I was dead” should be a call to concern and action by parents. Often, a teenager gets the opposite response and is told to stop being melodramatic, or told their concerns are not nearly as serious as the problems of adults. These cries for help should be taken seriously. The emotions are real, the risk of depression and suicide are very, very real. Loss of life is, fortunately, a low probability. Loss of happiness and well being, loss of success in school or with peers is completely possible, valid and very deserving of our support and care.