Can teenage suicide be prevented?
This is the conclusion of a three-part series of articles related to the alarming rise in teenage suicide, and the efforts to prevent what many have called “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” In this segment we’ll analyze severe depression and feelings of extreme hopelessness, which should alert parents, teachers and physicians to potentially suicidal teenagers.
Signs of severe
Can a teenage suicide epidemic be prevented? Perhaps the ultimate expression of a youth’s alienation and loss of hope is suicide. Not surprisingly, the suicide rate among young people in many Western countries has been climbing steadily. More than 30,000 Americans commit suicide each year, and tragically, young teenagers are commonly the victims! Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15-19 years in the United States. There were eight verified suicides in Sevier County in 2002, and one was a juvenile.
“The number of teenage children who threaten and attempt suicide has increased,’ says Dr. Cynthia Pfeffer, a Cornell University psychiatrist. “Studies in the 1960’s indicated that no more than 10% of the children sent to outpatient clinics showed suicidal behavior. In a more recent study I did, 33% of the children studied had suicidal ideas.”
Even those horrible numbers merely scratch the surface of youthful despair. “Suicide attempts outnumber actual suicides among young people by fifty to one,” reports Dr. Calvin Frederick of the National Institute of Mental Health. He reasons, “Severe depression is the most common ingredient in youthful suicides, which have become ‘an epidemic’ in some countries. You can just imagine the bewilderment and pain some youths feel when faced with awesome family problems such as divorce, alcoholism, incest, wife-beating, child abuse, or simple rejection by a parent swallowed up in his or her own problems.”
To the teenager, it’s a ‘day of distress,’ especially since the young person often blames himself for many of the unfortunate circumstances at home. Those affected with major depression feel as if they will never get better, that there is ‘no tomorrow.’
Extreme hopelessness …
It’s the hopelessness that, according to medical experts, often leads to teenage suicidal behavior. Who will be there to lend support before it’s too late?
Writing in ‘Vivienne – The Life and Suicide of an Adolescent Girl,’ Professor John E. Mack observed something that young Vivienne had written in her diary. She wrote: “I am worthless. I am of no use to anyone. What good is it to kill myself? How can you kill nothing?” Why did she feel that way? She confessed to her diary “I have the constant feeling that I’m big and clumsy, and sort of dense beside a friend who is small, precise, brilliant, and absolutely perfect.”
Have you noticed how today’s advertising and entertainment media encourage destructive comparisons by glorifying physical attractiveness, sexuality, and academic achievements? Also, one’s own weaknesses add to feelings of low self-esteem. Some try to cover over feelings of guilt or worthlessness by running away from home, practicing sexual promiscuity, or engaging in heavy drinking and illegal drugs.
Vivienne was an example of a young girl that resorted to injecting herself with heroin. She wrote, “I had plenty of self-confidence – until the drug wore off.” And when it did, she was faced with extreme hopelessness. The most persistent emotion connected with major depression – and the deadliest – is a deep sense of hopelessness. Vivienne could not fight any longer. In despair this 14-year-old hanged herself.
Professor Mack concluded, “Vivienne’s inability to foresee that her depression would ever lift, that she had any hope of ultimately obtaining relief from her pain, was an important element in her decision to kill herself.”
Talk to someone about it …
Unfortunately, when confronted with despair many young persons cannot even visualize alternatives, or the possibility of a favorable outcome. So what can help them to keep their hope up? A ‘good word’ from an understanding person can make all the difference in the world. No human can read your heart, so a teenager needs to pour it out to someone they trust, and who can help straighten out their thoughts.
“But I’ve already tried that,” many teenagers may say, “and all I get is a look-on-the-bright-side-of-life lecture.” True, not everyone is a skillful counselor, but there are many willing to help. Depression does not clear up immediately. But gradually, with the proper assistance, teenagers can cope with their emotions. Seeking out skillful counselors, and expressing their feelings are essential elements to preventing teenage suicides.
What can teachers, educators and school personnel do? In cases of emergencies, when they detect signs of depression or potential suicide, the teacher or guidance counselor should notify the student’s parents, and secure assistance from community resources. The student should be kept under close scrutiny and supervision, and must not be left alone. Let the student know that you’re concerned about his welfare.
The presence of a psychiatric disorder, particularly a mood disorder such as depression or bipolar illness, a conduct disorder, or a psychosis, contributes to the likelihood of suicide. However, not all students with depression or other psychiatric disorders are suicidal. If you have any doubts, consult your family physician or an expert in mental health services. Learning to recognize severe depression, or a sense of extreme hopelessness, can head-off a teenage suicide attempt and other related problems down the road. It’s going to take the cooperation, love and concern of parents, teachers, physicians, the clergy, family, friends and professionals in the mental health field to work diligently with these young people to prevent a suicide epidemic, … that “permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
For further facts and information on preventing teenage suicide in the Seymour area, parents can contact Cherokee Health Systems, located at 10731 Chapman Highway. They have four counselors available to answer questions 24-hours a day at 573-0698. In Sevier County, the Peninsula Outpatient Center is located at 124 N. Henderson Avenue, Building B, in Sevierville, TN behind the Tennessee State Bank just off Dolly Parton Parkway.
The Peninsula Hospital is located at 2347 Jones Bend Road in Louisville, TN.
In Blount County, the Peninsula Outpatient Center is located at 701 Morganton Square Drive, in Maryville, TN. Telephone (865) 970-9800 to make an appointment at any of their locations.