Suicide is a leading cause of death for Australian teens. For parents and those who work with young people, understanding the way suicidal thoughts impact on their lives and what support can help them to reach better days can be the difference between life and death.
This is a difficult topic for most people to talk about, and not an easy one to write on either. But for hundreds of families in Australia, and thousands more around the world, they live with the darkness of suicide hanging over their child every day.
In 2013, 20 percent of deaths among Australian children aged between 5 and 18 years were due to suicide, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Indigenous young Australians take their own lives at nearly five times the rate of non-Indigenous young people. For youngsters aged 15 to 19, just under 35 percent of deaths are due to suicide each year. These are harrowing figures, that suggest there are many young people alive today who are struggling with thoughts of ending their own life.
Living with suicidal thoughts
Every person who has suicidal thoughts will have a different experience of life. It will be difficult for them to explain to you what it feels like, and they may even struggle to put into words what it’s like. But from the outside, it looks like they’ve fallen into a deep pit of mud and can’t get out. The sides are slippery and despite people throwing down a rope, they just can’t climb out of it.
They get tired easily and feel like giving up. Then at the last minute they’ll give it one more try.
There are so many emotions. Sadness, anger, hopelessness, fear, hurt, guilt….
For family members living with a teen who has suicidal thoughts, these emotions take on a life of their own and impact on the culture within the house and how others are able to cope with life too. If you’re working with a young person who is talking about suicide, then be mindful of how their thoughts and actions might be impacting on not only their parents, but brothers and sisters as well.
Suicide is about the loss of hope. There’s an old myth that suicide is a selfish act, but I doubt that people who take their lives are thinking of themselves when they do it. I think there’s an overwhelming sense of guilt and feeling that they are a burden, so suicide is seen as an act of sparing their family from more pain.
One other thing that people who live or work with young people experiencing suicidal thoughts should look out for is grenades. If you’ve ever watched a war movie, you’ll know this scene. The good guys lob a grenade into the bad guys’ lair to wipe out some of them and start an intense gun battle, before entering the building. I think teens do this all the time, especially when they are dealing with things that they’re not sure what reaction they’ll get. So they lob a grenade out there to see who will respond and what that response will be.
If a teen tells you they’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, they’re wanting to see how you react. Will you fly into a panic or will you stay calm? Will you ignore them or laugh it off? Will you draw closer or draw back? If they talk about suicidal thoughts or hint at it, you can be sure they’re looking for a safe person to give them a hand.
What support can work?
The reality is that every young person that experiences suicidal thoughts will have their own individual journey of recovery. The reason they experience them, what helps to keep them at bay or at least helps the young person rationalise them – these will vary from one teen to another.
If a young person is experiencing suicidal thoughts, talking about suicide or taking big risks with their life that says they really don’t care if they live or die, then I want to encourage you to help them get professional help. It may not be a pleasant experience for them, but talking to a mental health professional could save their life. Don’t ever, ever, ever discount words young people speak about suicide. One of the major causes of suicidal thoughts is depression, which I have more information about in my article on teenage depression.
If a young person is receiving help, or refusing to access it, then it can be difficult to help them work through suicidal thoughts, but from my experience, these are some things that parents, caring adults and those that work with young people can try to support them as they work through their feelings and hopefully reach better days:
- Exercise. There’s plenty of evidence that exercise is essential for releasing hormones that improve your mental health. Getting teens with negative thoughts active can help with their sleep too. The difficulty is that when a young person is depressed, they often don’t want to do anything or mix with other people. Even if they’ve lost interest in playing in a team sport, look for ways to encourage them to exercise on their own or even give them a gym membership with the suggestion that could be a good place to hide out from the world.
- Diet and a good multivitamin. Negative thoughts can have a big impact on appetite and diet. Keeping them eating, and eating well can be challenging, but just keep offering. Offer plain foods and serve up their favourites; sometimes you’ll get a win and sometimes you won’t. And if you can, get them to take a multivitamin to make sure they’re getting a good balance of nutrients to help their mind heal itself.
- Something to be passionate about. We all need to feel like we have something to contribute to this world, some purpose to our lives, and the teenage years are an important time for working this out. Teens who have suicidal thoughts can feel like all their passions are being extinguished, so if they have something they do love, help them to explore that more and more. It might just be the reason they hang in for one more day.
- Pointing out what they look like to others. Suicidal thoughts are like a really bad 80’s record running through their head over and over again; it just gets stuck in there on repeat. The thoughts cloud their perception of themselves, which is often completely different to how most other people see them. It’s not about giving them false praise, but pointing out why people like to spend time with them, have them in their team, what talents they have, how they contribute to the richness of life… It might not feel like it’s getting through, but there has to be a counter message to the endless record they hear from themselves.
- Space to recover from life. Suicidal thoughts are really draining for people to deal with. It’s like a mental tug-of-war going on all day and often at night too, so by the time they get home from school, university or work, the last thing they really want to do is be surrounded by more people. Don’t interpret their hiding out in their room as a rejection of you. If you’ve managed to get them to go to school or work today, then you’ve had a win. Snatch the moments when they do want your company or when they can’t refuse it, like when you’re dropping them off somewhere in the car.
- Challenge faulty thinking. The negative perceptions young people get of themselves, and their ideas around how life would be better without them should be challenged. Suicide has been such a taboo topic for so long, but we should be willing to jump into that space and question their picture of what life would be like without them around. Just because someone has suicidal thoughts doesn’t mean that they can’t have rational ones too.
- A faith. For some people, their suicidal thoughts might be the result of harm they’ve received from people of faith, but suicide to me is about being in a place that young people feel completely hope-less. Faith gives people hope. It helps them to find their purpose and puts a value on their life. If you can connect a young person experiencing suicidal thoughts with people of faith, that hope might just rub off and give them the strength to look to better days and find more ways to pull themselves out of their muddy thoughts.
If you’re supporting a young person with suicidal thoughts, then one last tip I would give you is to get some good support for yourself. This can be a long and challenging road, where you get some improvement and then they fall in a muddy pit again. Having friends who will listen to you, and some professional counselling for yourself can help you get through it all and be the best supporter you can be.
Suicide is robbing this world of so many wonderful young people. We can only turn this around by working together and helping them to seek out support that works for them and gives them a chance to make it to better days. So don’t give up, stay positive and just keep tackling each day, one at a time.