The Impact of Teen Suicide
David Goodman was a pretty average 16-year-old kid. He was a rising star on the high school swim team and a successful student. But like many his age, David was restless and often suffered from extreme bouts of depression. When he failed to show up for breakfast on a school morning, his mother knew something was wrong.
"David was doing fine in school and he had good friends," says his mother, Melinda Goodman. "As his sophomore year progressed, though, he grew increasingly despondent about life. After a few weeks of worrying about him, we decided to take him to see a counselor."
Two days before David was to begin meeting with the counselor, his mother's worst fears became reality. The last night before school concluded for the summer, David wrote a brief note of apology, slipped out to the garage and used a ladder and rope to hang himself.
The wave of shock and grief that resulted from David's suicide forever changed his family, friends and community.
"Even though he had seemed depressed and moody, no one really expected David to do something like that," Goodman says. "It just doesn't seem right that someone so young should die so tragically. I could never understand why he felt it was his only option. I've spent a lot of time blaming myself."
Sadly, David is far from alone in feeling that life is not worth living. In fact, 5,000 American teenagers commit suicide every year, and according to the National Suicide Help Center, three times as many attempt it.
In a survey of high school students conducted by the American Association of Pediatrics, 60 percent said they had thought about killing themselves, and 9 percent said they had tried at least once.
"The teen years are characterized by extreme stress, confusion, self-doubt and pressure to succeed," says suicide counselor Dr. Thomas Barton. "These issues are frequently compounded by divorce, substance abuse, major relocation and a number of indiscernible factors relating to the stress of modern life. Many teens who have a difficult time coping with the changes that accompany growing up see suicide as a way out."
Disturbingly, the teen suicide rate has risen an astonishing 200 percent in the last 40 years. Today, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, after auto accidents and homicide. Dr. Barton attributes the dramatic rise to a concurrent increase in divorce rates, teen drug abuse, the easy availability of guns and "increased economic pressure."
It's worth noting that teen suicide rates are twice as high among white males as among male minorities or females, and firearms are far and above the most common weapon of choice. Statistics also indicate that teen suicide rates in rural areas and the mountain states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana are considerably higher than in the rest of the country.
Seeing the Signs
David, who was a seemingly well-adjusted teen, outstanding athlete and high academic achiever, caught his family and classmates off guard with the catastrophic decision to end his life, but many teens who attempt to take their own lives do show early warning signs.
"Everyone exhibits regular mood swings, but if a teen's melancholy disposition lingers for more than two weeks, serious depression could be setting in," says Dr. Barton. "If there is cause for concern, parents should monitor their child's mood swings and talk to them frankly if they feel concerned."
There are other signs Dr. Barton encourages parents to watch for:
- Frequent naps or excessive sleep
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- An obsession with death (poems, music, drawings)
- Jokes about suicide
- History of suicide in the family
- Traumatic experiences such as pregnancy or relationship problems
- Suddenly giving away prized possessions
Dr. Barton emphasizes that there are a number of things a parent can do if they believe their child is considering suicide. Aside from seeking immediate counseling, parents should also remove all dangerous weapons from the household, including knives, sleeping pills, ropes and especially guns.
When dealing with a potential suicide victim, experts unanimously agree that good and immediate communication is essential. "Parents should remind their distressed teens that no matter how awful his or her problems seem, it will work out, and they are willing to help," Dr. Barton says. "Ask them to talk about their feelings. Listen carefully. Do not dismiss their problems or get angry. If the early warning signs are there, suicide is certainly preventable, but it's very important that adults respond quickly with a high level of patience."
According to one study, 90 percent of suicidal teens say that no one in their families understood them or listened to their cries for help, so it is important that parents take time to listen and help their child understand that life is not as bad as it sometimes appears.
This truism is not lost on Goodman, who, in the two years since her son's tragic death, has done all she can to make sure no other teen ever feels there isn't anyone to talk to, including helping facilitate a teen suicide crisis hot line.
"It is very healing to help others deal with their stress and fears," Goodman says. "I feel like I'm giving something to David every time I take a call and talk to someone who feels like there's no other way out. I don't want any other parent to feel the pain that comes from losing a child to suicide. It makes me feel better to know that I'm helping save lives, but I still get up in the middle of the night to check on my own kids."