The Trauma of Teen Suicide: Here’s What You Can Do

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare:  Almost no other issue terrifies a parent more than Teen Suicide. In my community this past year, there have been too many of these tragedies that occurred for a variety of reasons, among the contributing factors: being bullied, being left out, being pressured too hard, and “coming out” as gay.

GIRLilla Warfare’s designer Dave Stepen interviewed Robin Mitzen, who has counseled families and individuals for 25 years, to find out what parents can do to teach their kids about suicide, how to look for signs, and what to do if we see our own child or someone else’s in a crying-out-for-help situation.

GW: What can you say about the contributing factors of what seems to be a “spate of teen suicides” nationwide?

On the surface we see a variety of commonalities. Three major factors are: social pressures, bullying, and exclusion (or being ‘left out’) – I am seeing an increasing number of suicides relating to the “pressure” put on these teenagers — particularly grades, sports, and fitting in socially. While we are seeing communities, trying to implement suicide awareness and prevention programs, is simply not enough. Addressing the underlying issues of suicide through our education system, our churches, our synagogues, or other community programs is a good start, but it must be addressed in the home.

Parents need to become more aware of what’s going on. Many parents are in denial, or think this couldn’t possibly happen to their family. That is very dangerous and yet a very common mentality.

With respect to to pressures of being a teen, in many cases it begins subtly in the home. A competitive pressure to get better grades, pressure to perform better in sports, pressure to look better, are all instilled in children at an early age.

GW: What is the underlying problem with all this pressure and competition?

What the kids are taking in are the messages: “I’m not good enough; I do it wrong; I am not smart enough, I am not pretty enough, I am not skinny enough, I am not athletic enough… if you’re not #1 – you are not enough.” This is not to say they are hearing that overtly, but it is what they are feeling.

GW: What does bullying do to the psyche?

What typically happens is that the hurt goes very deep and usually isn’t detected or addressed appropriately, resulting in alienation and detachment. Once a person has gone down this lonely path, he or she doesn’t realize how much they have detached, making it incredibly difficult to get back into a social circle, or a group of friends. Isolation and detachment can lead this person into a cycle of “thought rumination” — in which they create scenarios of what is going on in their life. It’s a perception problem, which are really never based on facts.

GW: Is there a way to stop this spiral before it goes too far?

Yes, I teach clients Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is a formulation of stopping the “bad thoughts” and conquering the facts — not the rumination of  “what could be” in the future. The key is to stay in the present and refocus on true facts. It’s retraining the thought process and it takes practice, but after time they become more at ease because they have given themselves a method to break that spinning obsessive thought pattern.

GW: Are there phases or predictable steps that kids go through? They don’t just jump from A to B impulsively, do they?

Some kids really actually do. It happens quickly and generally is an unplanned event. Where adults typically have a plan, kids are way more impulsive when it comes to suicide attempts. These days, kids think along the lines of immediate gratification – they want it NOW and fall victim to impulsivity.

Some of these kids think: “This isn’t worth it at THIS moment; life really sucks right now” and they move too quickly without thinking of the consequences.

GW: What are some of the signs parents should watch for suicide prevention?

Watching for evidence of low self-esteem, who their kids are hanging out with, what their kids are wearing, what time they get up in the morning, and when they go to sleep are easy things to see. Pay attention to the kind of music they are listening to on their iPods/phones. Monitoring social media activity is very important, not that parents should be “spying” or “stalking” their kids every move, rather monitoring. If a kid has a Facebook account, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for inappropriate activity or behavior. There are patterns we have seen in the recent rash of “Murder/Suicide” cases nationwide. Most notably is the type of violent games and music that they listen to as well as the types of websites they surf or their social media activities. The parents of these kids are often busy working, supporting their families, and not looking in their own home.

GW: How should parents handle it if they DO take notice?

Absolutely get their kid help, take the reins, and take charge.

Where it can become muddied and dangerous is when the parents don’t create the structure or have parental boundaries. These parents are not thinking about the best interest of the child, but are trying to be their “friends” – this creates grey areas that are confusing for the child.

Boundaries keep children safe, no matter what age, what the family type, what background … structure is what children of all ages need. Stepping up, getting your child professional help is living with boundaries and more importantly shouldn’t be swept under the carpet for fear of what people might think. Unfortunately, there are still social stigmas with therapy and all too often the parents are not willing to get their kid the help they so desperately need.

GW: When kids — especially girls — send topless photos to others, or generally act rebellious online — which we know has led to suicide (CYBER-Bullying) — what should YOUR kid do?

It isn’t so clear-cut. Kids today do not want to “out” one another for fear of being labeled as a “tattler” or being “un-cool.” I think it’s more of what the PARENT should do. As a parent if you see or hear about something inappropriate on-line or off-line, I highly recommend going to the source, especially for younger teens (13-16). Call the parent and let them know what you have seen – ask them if they are aware of what is going on. Set an example for your own child by watching out for one another. If the teenager is 17-19, I might suggest going directly to that teen and confronting them in a caring way.

GWHow does this generation compare to others — why does it seem as if so many kids are taking this option of suicide?

From the parental point of view, this generation wants to be their kids’ friends, and even contribute the their social advancement. From the kids’ perspective – everything is fast-fast-fast; immediate needs, jam-packed social and recreational schedules – we are in the fast digital era where these kids have so much more at their immediate fingertips than the generation before. The information accessibility, communication, and connectivity is overly abundant today, whereas 20-30 years ago the only technology was to pick up a phone and make a call. If the person didn’t pick up there was no social stigma or problem.

Today, if you don’t respond immediately the fear is that you will be left out. Our kids, who are all digital natives, are also digital slaves.

The reason they take the suicide option is despair and the total feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.

GW: Has all the attention/comments/likes on Facebook when someone commits suicide actually fueled the fire?

I don’t know that it does, but I do believe that if you get people talking and communicating, it is a good thing. I don’t believe that suicides in teens today are thought-out to that degree (which goes back to what we talked about earlier with regard to “planning” vs. impulsivity). I don’t believe that the kids are thinking that “only the cool and good die young” or subscribe to the James Dean effect. While we do see copy-cat suicides in clusters, we can’t blame the social media as much as we can scrutinize the media and journalists who sensationalize suicide.

The comments and conversations happening in the social medium is just another way that kids are asking for help – and I think we need more of that.

GW Is it a good thing that there are Facebook pages in which kids and family members can write their memories?

I believe it is good to open up communication and give the kids an outlet. It helps them express themselves/grieve and deal with their feelings, but it also raises awareness. Also, grief left unaddressed within the first 3-6 months can lead to a longer period of healing; many times up to 2-3 years of unnecessary suffering. Facebook memorial pages are just one more way of grieving and exposing feelings.

GW: “The Talk” — What are few key points to teach your kids about suicide?

Depending on the age, the message will vary a bit, but the general thing I tell parents is to talk openly and simply about the topic. If it is in response to a recent death in the community, I suggest that parents tell their children that this does happen to kids, this does happen in our community, that nobody will really know exactly how they felt at the time, but they may have felt very hopeless or alone.

Encourage your kids to open up if they are feeling these feelings, tell someone … say to them: “If you don’t want to tell us (your parents), then open up to someone, another adult, a teacher, anybody … but don’t keep it a secret.”

Explain that these things do happen, and that maybe that person felt they just didn’t have anyone to tell, or didn’t know where to turn – but the truth is there are a lot of people who would care and who would listen.

The best advice I can give to parents when talking about any tough subject, especially suicide, is use a “mirroring” technique. Ask your child if they can repeat in their own words what they believe they just heard you say. It’s also very important to give them praise and affirmations as they are talking.

GW:  What can the schools do to address this growing issue, especially at the high school level?

Continue to face the hard-hitting facts head on. Realize that kids don’t always want to talk about what is bothering them with their parents; that there are other avenues of reaching out to social workers, professionals, programs and the community for help and support. It’s not that the parents don’t have the right answers, it’s that teens typically repel learning from them. Additionally, it isn’t just the students of the school that need these programs —  parents need to be involved, educated and immersed in this growing problem as well.

Where we once had telephone hotlines in the 70’s and 80’s, we now have the Internet; social media; blogs to keep the subject matter at the forefront in a more fluid way to keep the awareness omnipresent. Teens today are more likely to look to the Internet or social media for help or answers, because there is very little risk in being discovered, embarrassed or labeled.

 LB: Robin Mitzen, LC CADC, has been counseling families and individuals for over 25 years. She is a member of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate Association), which advocates for abused or neglected children. Robin is the founder and counselor of “Your Life Counselor” in Northbrook, IL. For more information please email Robin: robin@yourlifecounselor.com or visit her website www.yourlifecounselor.com

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