Everywhere I look lately, teen suicide is in the spotlight. From last year’s news that suicide is now the leading cause of death for teens in Utah to the controversial Netflix show “13 Reasons Why,” the topic of teen suicide keeps surfacing.
Some friends of mine and I recently talked about the growing problem and what is driving the numbers. Recent coverage of the topic points the finger of blame at a variety of sources — the culture of perfection in Utah, lax gun control, strict religious worthiness standards and even the altitude.
The problem is changing an institution or an entire culture takes time, and our children are suffering now. While we should definitely address long-term change, we need solutions now that we can implement in our homes.
From talking to friends who have dealt firsthand with teen suicide, here is the most pervasive theme to emerge: Teens need to feel like they are enough. Right now. Just the way they are — flaws and all.
In our homes (and in our church lessons), we need to stop tying worth to virginity or sexual orientation or GPA. We have to stop giving lessons in youth groups that glorify perfection while pretending to be perfect ourselves. We are not perfect. No one is. But we still deserve love. We are still of value to God and to society.
This is the message we need to deliver to our children: You have worth. Not because you are perfect, but because you are you.
We need to stop looking for ways to fix our kids and start searching ourselves for ways to accept them. We need to care more about what our children think of themselves than what anyone else thinks of us for raising them.
We must abandon the idea that God wants us to follow some pre-determined path, and if we fall short or veer off track, then we’ve disappointed him. Instead, let’s teach our kids that God (or whatever higher power they believe in) is a co-creator with them, helping them construct a beautiful life that fits their unique viewpoints and personality instead of the other way around.
We need to stop saying things like “Why can’t you just be (fill in predetermined, unobtainable standard here)" or sending the message that they are letting us down as parents. We need to stop making it about us.
If you have guilt or shame or embarrassment over who your child is or what he or she has done, that’s on you. Be an adult and deal with your demons. Don’t put them on the fragile shoulders of your teenage child.
And if mental health is a problem, get help. You can’t pray away their problems. Call a doctor. Don’t be so embarrassed by the stigma of a depressed teen that you sweep their problems — and them — under the carpet.
I’m sure some people will say I’m advocating a philosophy where kids have no accountability and can just do whatever they want. I’m not. Parents still need to parent, and children still need to learn right from wrong. More than ever, we need parents who are willing to up their game and use love to guide our children rather than fear and shame.
I was born and raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I never knew a God or a parent who withholds love because they disagree with my choices. I’m lucky that I had parents with whom I never doubted that love, just as I never doubted that God was there, his arms outstretched to me always. I believed that like any good parent, he wants the best for me and wants me to progress into someone better, but I also believed that he loved me in that moment, mistakes and all.
I wish every child could grow up feeling that kind of love.
I don’t think there is a simple answer to the teen suicide problem. And I don’t think parents are to blame when their child takes his or her own life.
But we can’t sit around waiting for focus groups to tell us the answers or institutions or cultures to enact sweeping changes. Hopefully, those changes come. But in the meantime, we need to act. We need to go to the teens in our circle of influence, wrap our arms around them and make sure they know that right now, just as they are, they have worth.
They are enough.
And our lives — our world — would have an irreplaceable hole without them.
Erin Stewart is a regular blogger for Deseret News. From stretch marks to the latest news for moms, she discusses it all while her daughters dive-bomb off the couch behind her and her newborn son wins hearts with his dimples.