Building Life: Preventing Teen Suicide
The Building Life column will appear weekly and will address a variety of topics on the challenges of parenting and raising well-adjusted children.
Building Life (www.buildinglife.net) is the primary task of a healthy community. It requires informed and cooperative leadership and participation. This weekly column seeks to facilitate dialogue as it addresses issues for teens and families in the Severna Park and Broadneck communities.
Reader comments and suggestions will guide the selection of future topics and responses in this column.
Building Life is a nonprofit organization that uses music and media to raise awareness and funding for areas throughout the United States that are in need of mental health, spiritual care outreach and community cooperation.
The Building Life Project in Anne Arundel County offers events, service projects, web-based resources and educational opportunities for both youth and adults to support teens in their lives and life-building.
Teen suicide is a sobering reality. It raises questions for mental health providers, faith communities and parents about what we are doing (or not) to help youth cope with their worlds.
Cooperation among churches, community leaders and organizations and local schools has increased awareness of the problem of teen suicide and its prevention. Severna Park and the surrounding communities were not exempt from the rise in attempted and completed suicides in Anne Arundel County three years ago; five deaths in less than a year.
Now prevention is the focus of concern and, while this will not be the only nor the primary topic discussed in this column, it is one that is of utmost importance to our community.
As a clinician, I wonder about traditional "handles" we've used to anticipate suicide. As a pastor, I question the efficacy of the message we offer about God's tangible presence, love and mercy, and what we say about life after death.
As a parent, I revisit my own child raising agonizing with parents who have lost children to suicide. All would say they would have done anything to prevent such tragedy.
Classic symptoms of depression signaling suicidal thinking are familiar. Counselors, teachers, adult leaders, parents and teens know to be alarmed by behavioral changes like a drop in grades, lethargy, isolation, minimal social support, spontaneous crying, weight loss or gain, and inactivity.
I believe that there is a cultural phenomena occurring wherein these symptoms are not adequately definitive. Their absence does not necessarily mean that our youth are "safe." The teens who have died recently were planning futures. Asymptomatic teens are still at risk.
What are we missing?
First, young people in our society expect immediate gratification. Many get what they want thanks to advanced communication systems and/or degrees of parental indulgence. Cell phones, text messages or email, downloading music or Googling offer "the world" literally at their fingers. "Waiting" is not a given now.
Unlike "planned" suicides, some teen suicides are impulsive and unpredictable. Second, we parents don't want to see children hurt or suffering, and too often have been over-protective. We are not all "helicopter" parents, hovering in such a way that we inhibit maturity. But most of us, while well intentioned, intervene where our children might be better served by learning a hard lesson about consequences.
When parental action cannot "fix it" (as in a dating breakup), the adolescent lacks emotional tools to deal with it alone. Finally, this generation obsessively views screens (monitors, cell phones and television) with hypnotic effect. Virtual reality blurs the boundary with the real world.
Technology and Teens
Teens have learned to "get new life" when a video character "dies" by pushing "restart." They have intimate conversations over social networks and form powerful relationships with strangers. Suicide can occur in a kind of trance-like, altered state, where it momentarily seems a viable option.
Consequences are minimized, and the impulsive drive for escape and immediate need to act yield thoughtless results. Recent adolescent brain research confirms this as precisely the issue: teens do not/cannot "think" about consequences in the face of impulse. Ironically, most teens actually don't intend to die.
Facebook and other social networks allow ongoing "conversations" with the deceased. Websites support a kind of grieving, but also perpetuate a false sense of the person's presence. "Virtual reality" disguises the loss, while grief is ameliorated by friends who post on the site. The reality of a friend's death is softened by perpetual access. Finality is held at a distance.
New Approaches Needed
We accurately associate suicide with depression as an illness, or with cause such as trauma or substance abuse. We mobilize and respond in good and reparative ways, and these are organized and effective. Still it is time for some updated and ultimately pre-emptive actions. Some teenagers no longer fit classic scenarios. Community responses cannot be only traditional ones.
We must act with informed responses, openness to new ways of thinking, and awareness of our youth's world. Because life and death issues contain questions of faith and meaning, local resources with authority and responsibility to speak to these concerns (churches, mental health counselors, schools and parents) cannot operate in isolation.
We need each other; and, where our youth are vulnerable, we need to offer new models of understanding and community practice that may transform our communities.
For more information on The Building Life Project and for resources if you or someone you know is at risk visit www.buildinglife.net.
Nancy Lincoln Reynolds is a licensed professional counselor, Maryland; Fellow, American Association of Pastoral Counselors Associate Pastor, Woods Presbyterian Church, Severna Park, MD.
If you have a topic pertaining to teens and family you would like to see in this column, email: email@example.com