by Jason Liptow
Suicide is a growing problem in society today in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1995 22,552 Americans died of homicide in 1995 while 31,284 died due to suicide (Teens Attempting Suicide). Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the United States (Dolce 13). While it is estimated that nearly 35,000 Americans commit suicide every year it is believed that that number is closer to 100,000 because so many suicides are ruled as accidents (Dolce 13). The number of attempted suicides in the United States is even more overwhelming. Approximately 5 million people now living in the United States have attempted suicide (Dolce 13).
Meanwhile, suicide among teenagers is becoming a growing trend as well. The third leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 15 to 24 is suicide, second only to homicide and car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control (Understanding and Preventing Teen Suicide). Once every 80 seconds an adolescent attempts to take his or her own life (Dolce 14). Again, these numbers may not be accurate as many suicides and attempted suicides are often reported as accidents, leading to the conclusion that the problem of teen suicide is even greater than what is reported (Teen Suicide APA).
Teen suicide affects everyone close to the victim – parents, friends, and siblings and family. For these people it is difficult to overcome the suicide because they feel guilty; the reason(s) for the suicide are often never known. But teen suicide is a growing problem that can be deterred.
The facts of teenage suicide paint a picture of sadness and desperation in a time of turbulence for many teens. During adolescence teens deal with a multitude of new experiences such as new relationships, decisions about their future, and the physical changes that are taking place in their bodies. It is a very confusing and difficult time for many teens. While many teens handle these changes more easily than others, many become so overwhelmed by them that they feel like they have nowhere to turn and commit suicide. Adolescence is a time of great confusion and anxiety for many. During this time teens feel the pressure to fit in socially, to perform academically, and to act responsibly (Understanding and Preventing Teen Suicide). Adolescence is also a time of sexual awakening, growing self-identity, and a need to be oneself that often conflicts with the rules and norms of our society (Understanding and Preventing Teen Suicide).
Teens that have a strong support group of friends, family, religious affiliations, peer groups, and extracurricular activities may have an outlet to deal with these everyday frustrations. But teens without such a support group often feel disconnected or isolated which often put them at risk for suicide (“Suicide Prevention”). Every day, fourteen young people commit suicide, or approximately 1 every 100 minutes (Teen Suicide). This rate has more than tripled since the 1950’s for teens (Dolce 14).
Why do so many teens attempt or commit suicide? Why has the number of suicides and attempted suicides increased so drastically in recent years? One of these reasons is the connection between depression in teens and suicide.
It is important to understand that adolescents who are suicidal often exhibit many signs or signals before they actually attempt or succeed in suicide. Keeping an eye on teens for these signals may allow parents, teachers, and friends the opportunity to intervene before they actually carry through with the act. Some of the signs are easier to spot than others. The strongest risk factors for attempted suicide in teens are depression, alcohol or drug abuse, and aggressive or disruptive behaviors (Teen Suicide). Teens that come from alcoholic or abusive families, have suffered physical or sexual abuse, lack parental support, and have a history of family depression are also at great risk (Understanding and Preventing Teen Suicide). These factors usually exhibit the easiest signs of possible suicidal tendencies. Depressed moods, substance abuse, frequent episodes of running away or being incarcerated, and impulsive, aggressive behavior are all signs that are often exhibited in teens that have the highest risk of committing suicide (Teen Suicide). If any of these behaviors are detected in an adolescent they should be referred to a professional psychologist, counselor, or doctor for assistance.
Other signs or signals of suicide may not seem so obvious or may appear to just be normal behavior for teenagers. But it is important to not just dismiss these signs as only regular behavior, especially if the teen has recently undergone a major traumatic event in his/her life. Such traumatic events may include divorce, loss of a family member, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, abusive parents, loss of a job by a family member, moving to a different city or school, or suffering constant humiliation or embarrassment at school (Teen Suicide). Some of the signals that may accompany these traumatic events include withdrawal from family and friends, no longer interested in participating in events that they once enjoyed, giving away possessions, talking of death or suicide, arguments with parents and friends, inability to concentrate, sleeping too much or too little, dramatic changes in personal appearance, expressions of hopelessness, self-destructive behaviors (promiscuity, substance abuse, or reckless driving, and changes in appetite (Understanding and Preventing Teen Suicide). Other signs include personality changes, complaints about physical symptoms such as headaches and fatigue, poor schoolwork, and boredom (Teen Suicide, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry). Teens at risk of suicide also may complain of being a bad person, become suddenly cheerful after a bout of depression (because they feel they have found the answer to their problems in suicide), and signs of psychosis (Teen Suicide, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry).
One of the most recent trends in factors that put teens at risk for suicide is that of sexual confusion. Teens who are dealing with homosexual feelings often feel isolated and alone. This is especially true for those who lack the support of friends and family. Many times they are scared to even discuss their sexual feelings for fear of being ostracized. Recent studies have shown that suicide attempts are far greater amongst adolescent teens who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual than among their heterosexual peers (Understanding and Preventing Teen Suicide).
Brent Hafen includes many other underlying factors in teen suicide in his book Youth Suicide besides those mentioned above. They are worthy of mention because it is important to know all of the factors that play a role in teen suicide. Among those already stated Hafen includes the following factors: disconnection with a parent, the “expendable child” syndrome (in which the child feels he is no longer wanted by the parents), role reversal (in which the child must take on the role of responsibility in the household), broken homes, lack of communication and understanding with parents, high expectations to perform academically, religious conflicts (in which the teen disagrees with the parents’ religious beliefs), bullying at school, constant moving from city to city, romanticized perceptions of suicide, the need to send out a distress signal, overwhelming shame or guilt, the desire to punish someone, tunnel vision (the belief that suicide is the only answer to a problem, no matter how trivial), exposure to violence, unresolved grief, the desire to get attention, cluster suicides (in which case a group of teens make a pact to commit suicide), and poor impulse control (66-116). Although this list may include factors that may seem trivial or even normal for teenagers, it is the effect that they have on each individual that make them important. As already stated, even though many teens go through many of these same situations and events and never attempt or commit suicide, there are many that do not have the coping mechanisms or support groups to deal with them. That is why it is so important to look for warning signals from those who may actually be thinking of committing suicide.
It is important to understand the factors and reasons that adolescents attempt and commit suicide in order to help stop the problem. It is also important to dispel the myths surrounding suicide amongst teens in order to gain a further understanding of how to stop the problem. One such myth is that people who talk about suicide never actually go through with it. This is probably the most dangerous misconception, according to Laura Dolce in Suicide (47). A person who talks about suicide is thinking about it. He or she brings it up to test other people’s reactions and is usually a cry for help. Dolce also dispels other misconceptions in her book. It is believed that people who commit suicide leave notes. Dolce states that the majority of suicides do not leave notes and is one of the reasons that many suicides are ruled as accidents rather than suicides (47). Another myth is that people who survive a suicide attempt never try it again. Dolce points out that 80% of those who commit suicide have attempted it before. The reason for this, she reasons, is that the problem causing the need to commit suicide has not been resolved (47). One of the biggest assumptions made about suicides is that people from good families never commit suicide. Dolce dismisses this claim, also, as suicide claims people from all walks of life, whether rich or poor. In fact adolescents who come from so-called “perfect families” may feel even more pressure to excel (49). It is often believed that people who attempt suicide are crazy. Dolce again dismisses this as a horrible myth as many teens that commit suicide are not mentally ill but see no other solution to a problem that they are experiencing and see suicide as the only answer to their problems (49). Another myth among society about suicide is that those who have attempted or thought about suicide remain suicidal for the rest of their lives. Dolce stresses that while many teens who have attempted suicide are indeed at a higher risk for attempting it again, many go on to lead normal lives. In fact, 70% of the general population has considered suicide at some time in their life but never go beyond that or act upon it (49). The last and possibly most important myth about suicide pertains to the victim. Many adolescents are drawn to suicide because they believe that taking their own life is a way of exacting revenge. They perceive themselves as having “gotten back” at a parent, friend, or peer. What they fail to understand, according to Dolce, is that suicide is permanent. It is a loss for themselves and for the people who are left behind. Suicide does not get even with anyone (50).
Once adolescents who are at risk for attempting suicide are identified it is important to help them through whatever they are going through to help prevent it. The American Psychiatric Association stresses that the last things these teens need are a lecture or to hear all the reasons they have to live. What they need is to be reassured that they have someone they can turn to in order to discuss their feelings or problems, whether it is family, friends, school counselor, teacher, physician, or religious leader. (Teen Suicide APA). It must be a person who is very willing to listen and who is able to reassure the individual that their problems or depression can be treated. If, in fact, the individual teen is suffering from depression, it is important to get them professional help from a psychiatrist or counselor (Teen Suicide APA).
While teen suicide is a severe problem in the United States today, it is one that can be deterred, if not completely eliminated. Looking for the proper signs and knowing about the factors involved for at-risk teens is an important step in solving the problem. All parents, teachers, counselors, and doctors should be aware of these signs. Even friends can play an important role in stopping suicide. Recognizing the signs and factors is just the first step in solving the problem. Finding the proper treatment is the next step. But if at-risk students can be identified early then that is half the battle. It’s a battle worth fighting since suicide is taking away so many promising young people from society and they are missing out on the wonderful gift of life.
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Written by Jason Liptow, B.A. in Social Studies from Madonna University, teacher certification from Saginaw Valley State University in Social Studies and History is the webmaster of Social Studies Made Simple. The goal of the website is to provide information and links about history, economics, and current events to students and teachers. For entire article see www.socialstudiesmadesimple.com.