David was a solitary young man who, over the years, had never seemed to find a niche at school or with friends. Shortly before his l6th birthday, he cleaned his room, wrote a will and gave away his treasured possessions. He was on his way out the door to take his life with rat poison when his mother, sensing something was amiss, stopped him to talk about her uneasiness.
That interruption in his plans bought David just enough time that he changed his mind and later told his mother of his intentions.It is almost luck David is alive today. His near attempted suicide was prompted partially by a deepening chemical depression, the signs of which, tragically, parents are not trained to recognize. These symptoms include:
- Radical personality changes, such as persistent sadness, loss of interest in usual activities or feelings of guilt, worthlessness and helplessness.
- Withdrawal from family, friends and regular activities.
- Disinterest in personal appearance.
- Changes in sleeping habits that take the form of erratic or restless sleeping or oversleeping.
- Difficulty concentrating, which may lead to reports of being "bored" at school, failing grades or sluffing.
- Rapid mood swings, frequent temper flare-ups, extreme irritability; sometimes violent or aggressive behavior.
- Drug or alcohol abuse, which may be used by a teen to "self-medicate" a depression.
- Physical complaints, such as stomachaches, headaches, "flu" symptoms; marked changes in appetite and weight gain or loss.
- Chronic fatigue; often difficulty getting up in the morning.
- Preoccupation with past events - some past "sin," the death of a peer or pet, the perceived betrayal of a friend.
- Dwelling on faults or failures, totally ignoring good traits.
Though these are common symptoms of depression, depressions may be masked. While many teens at risk are failing at school, others are high achievers who, despite their depression, are driven to succeed. Those who attempt suicide may do so when a depression interferes with their achieving up to their own expectations. Teens may also not have marked personality changes, because some may have been depressed since early childhood and many symptoms may be attributed to personality - "That's the way she's always been."
Some suicidal signals include a teen's giving verbal hints ("I won't be a problem to you much longer" or "Nothing matters"); poetry or stories preoccupied with death themes; teens putting their affairs in order, or suddenly becoming cheerful after a prolonged depression - a sign the teen is experiencing relief - the fatal decision has been made.
What can parents do to help protect their children? Here are important factors to consider:
- Always take seriously talk or gestures of suicide. Ask direct questions: "Have you been feeling depressed?" "Are you thinking of ending your life?" "Have you ever tried suicide?" "Do you have a plan?" (the more detailed the plan, the more serious the threat). If the answers are affirmative, immediately seek professional help.
- Also seek help for any lingering depression because, among many other ravaging effects, depression puts the teen at risk of acting impetuously. Says one expert: "Teenagers' lives move fast. They can be in love, break up, fail a test and get an `A' on another - all before third period." In a depression, teens hurt more of-ten and more deeply than other people, they tend to distort events, and they are much more impulsive and reactive to what happens to them. Events in their lives take on monumental and life-shattering implications. Teens particularly worry about parental reaction. One psychologist, in fact, estimates that one-third of all teens who kill themselves do so in anticipation of being disciplined. Thus, parents need to give teens repeated messages they are willing to listen and to help with any problem - no matter how far afield it may seem to be from the parents' own value system. Stress over and over that the teen's well-being is more important than any problem - a wrecked car, a pregnancy, a "D" in algebra, or a cut or dismissal from the football team.
- Teenagers who try suicide are often viewing death as a magical escape from seemingly unbearable and unresolvable pain. They usually do not comprehend the finality of death nor are many seeking death itself - just relief.
"Suicide-proof" your teens by discussing available options when they encounter what may seem to be insurmountable problems. Stress your availability and identify other people to whom they can go. Also emphasize the transitory nature of problems and emotions, and stress there are many optional ways of dealing with even the most distressing of problems. Share some of your own painful experiences as an adolescent to give your teen a long-range view of the emotional ups and downs of life. Finally, emphasize to teens they have the right to fail and to make mistakes and share personal experiences in this regard.
- Help other parents. In a recent large-scale survey of California teens from 12 to l9, each teen in the 12-to-15 age group said that two out of five of his or her friends or acquaintances had been suicidal; in the 16 to 19 age group, the number jumped to three out of five. Talk to your teens about their own friends and the issue of suicide. Work with them to find ways of alerting other parents of suicidal teens, perhaps by encouraging friends to talk to their parents or through the confidental intervention of a school counselor.