Recently, 15-year-old Paris Jackson’s alleged suicide attempt caught national attention. Rushed to the hospital after calling a suicide hotline, news sources cited the array of stressors likely affecting the famous young teen. The loss of her father, family instability, living in the public eye, and social turbulence.
Among concerns parents have about their teens, the even fleeting thought of suicide ignites a terror so visceral, realistic consideration and inquiry may be hastily abandoned. Teen girls, often pros at hiding their struggles, may leave parents out of the loop regarding the extent of their hopelessness. Without access to important information, parents may fail to recognize imminent risk, assuming that emotional turbulence is typical and expected in teens.
And to be clear, they would be right. Emotional turmoil is definitely part of being a teen. With brains undergoing huge changes, hormones surging, fragile self-confidence and scant life experience to counterbalance daily stressors, it’s no wonder they’re vulnerable.
Developmental underpinnings noted, we can never afford to minimize potential danger by chalking up teen distress to “She’s just emotional. She’ll be just fine.” Or by labeling a teen’s suffering as “drama” because to those who employ the term as a dismissal I want to say: “Dramatic” teen girls are also at risk for suicide. Possibly even more so.”
Taking your eye off the ball when it comes to safety and well-being has potential consequences too high to risk.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds after accidents and homicide. Approximately 25 attempts are made for every completed teen suicide. Risk dramatically increases when teens have access to firearms at home, and nearly 60% of all suicides in the United States are committed with a gun. Note: Guns in your home should be unloaded, locked, and kept out of the reach of children and teens.
While teens that self-cut may become suicidal at some point in their development, cutting does not indicate suicidality. Most teens who cut say that they do it to feel better and not to kill themselves. Teens who cut to feel better benefit greatly from therapy that focuses on increasing emotional self-awareness and emotional regulation through development of solid, healthy coping skills and stress management. If you become aware that your teen is self-cutting, take time to breathe and get support. In a loving and calm matter, let your teen know what you see and ask is she’s willing to talk about what it does for her.
It is a myth that asking about suicide increases the risk of suicide. If your teen is struggling with depression, loss, or trauma, ask her where her mind goes when she really feels bad. Let her know she can tell you anything and you won’t panic or freak out on her. If you have reason to expect suicidality, ask her directly and skillfully. For example: “I see you are having a really hard time and I want to support you through it. Do you ever feel so hopeless and helpless that you think of killing yourself? “If the answer is “Yes”, help her ventilate her thoughts and feelings. Let her know you want to help her stay safe so she can work through this hard time and go on to live a good life. If she feels as though she is in imminent danger of acting on suicidal thoughts and feelings, gently let her know you will stay will her every minute until you connect with professional help – and even then you will stay close and connected.
If a teen talks about wanting to end her life, even if she seems dramatic, take it seriously. Tell her you love her, you hear her, and you are committed to helping her through these feelings. Let her know that you believe she can get through this and that you are there for her. Find resources for support like group therapy and individual talk therapy. Start connecting your teen to things that are life affirming (people, activities, art, animals, rest) for her while removing or diminishing aspects that of her life that are overwhelming and stressful (harmful people, overwhelming responsibilities, toxic people, sources of negativity).
Note significant changes in behavior and compassionately inquire about her well-being. Examples: changes in friend groups, drop in grades, school refusal, mood changes, increased hostility, appetite or sleep changes, increased negativity about self and others, life and the future; drug and alcohol use, reckless behavior, loss of interest in things, activities or people she used to enjoy, tearfulness, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, general withdrawal, decreased attention to appearance. Don’t hesitate to consult a professional if your teen has difficulty opening up to you about any of these changes.
Sometimes teen girls who are sliding downward into serious depression search out information about suicide on the internet. Optimally, you want to establish a relationship with your daughter that includes her understanding of your need to touch base with her regarding her Internet activities and social media use. If she exposes something or you find information that is concerning, keep your cool and approach her with compassion because if you don’t regulate your own emotions, she may lock you out of her life when she really needs to let you in.
In the case of Paris Jackson, I see a young teen with multiple stressors. When teens have good solid coping strategies, they fare better in hard times. But while our educational system stresses English, Math, and Science, our teens get little or no education about their own emotions and how to respond to them. Ironic when you consider that the happiest and most successful people often know much more about how to cope with their feelings and relationships than they know about Calculus!
If you are in a crisis and need help right away for yourself or someone you care about:
Call this toll-free number, available 24 hours a day, every day: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a service available to anyone. All calls are confidential.
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