What are 14.5 percent of American teens thinking about? Hint: It’s not sex.
Yes, that’s actual data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency asked high-school students whether they ever had seriously contemplated suicide, and about one-sixth of them said yes. What’s worse — those numbers are going up. In 2007, 2 percent of high-school students actually attempted suicide. By 2009, it was 6 percent. That’s a lot of very unhappy kids, among them some of my friends’ children.
Great families. Great kids. But one of them is no longer with us.
What can we do to turn the tide? That’s what I asked Alan Ross, executive director of the Samaritans of New York (my town), which is part of the Samaritans’ international suicide prevention network. (To reach a suicide hotline, dial 800-273- TALK, or 800-273-8255.) He had some great advice. Please spread it.
The first thing is for parents, teachers, coaches and all adults who interact with kids to take note of any changes in the teens they know and love — changes in mood, hobbies, eating or sleeping or even physical things, for example, if a child suddenly is getting a lot of headaches. After all, changes indicate that kids are physically ill, right? Well, changes can indicate a mental health issue, as well. Anyone can have a bad day, but if the changes last two weeks, it is time to seek help. From whom? A doctor, a psychologist or perhaps the school’s nurse, guidance counselor or social worker.
Meantime, teens are old enough to hear about all this. Just as we talk to them about physical illness — how to stay healthy, when to see a doctor — it’s important to talk about mental issues, too. Usually, we’re embarrassed to do this. I know I am. But by matter-of-factly discussing depression, even suicide, we are giving our kids what Ross calls an emotional “fire drill” — a way for them to be prepared in the unlikely event of a disaster.
Tell them, “If you or a friend ever is feeling very depressed or even suicidal, please let me or another responsible adult know.” Mentioning “a friend” lessens the intensity of the discussion (just like, “If a friend of yours is drinking…”). Meanwhile, also teach your kid that if a real friend DOES say he’s going to kill himself and not to tell anybody, your kid must tell.
Better an angry friend than a dead one.
There are four levels of suicidal thoughts. The first is just contemplating it. The second is when a person has decided on how he’d do it. The third is when he has secured the means. The fourth is when he has decided on a time.
If you know of anyone who is at Level 4, says Ross, never leave her alone; she is too close to the edge.
The most practical thing parents can do is try to make Level 3 — the means to do it — hard to come by. After all, suicide can be an impulsive act. The harder it is to act on an impulse the safer our kids will be. That is precisely the reason my husband and I just bought a lockbox for our medicine. We’ve got enough Benadryl bottles to sedate a buffalo, because I buy them in bulk, and some old oxycodone, too. There’s no reason to keep these potential killers lying around. For the same reason, if you have any guns in the house, make sure they are locked up, too.
I’m on record as believing in kids. I think they are smarter and safer than pop culture tells us they are. But the stats show that a whole lot of them are thinking about taking their own lives. Let’s make it as difficult as possible for them to do that.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.” ©2011 Creators