Four Healthy Coping Mechanisms Teens Can Use

Psychologists have discovered new ways to offer hope to students who need it.

Posted Dec 20, 2018

The numbers were just released by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), and American life expectancy has dropped for the first time since World War I. In fact, it’s dropped for the last three years. When I first read this, I was stunned. Seriously? Isn’t science and medicine making advances to increase life expectancy? Absolutely. The trouble is—suicide rates are up, which is among the top two reasons for the decline in life spans. This is not just sad, it’s tragic.

45,000 Americans were lost to suicide over the past year. I have a sneaking suspicion that if this many people were killed due to other causes, we’d address them instantly. For some reason, however, we seem perplexed about what to do. The demographics are what make this the most sad. It’s often victims you wouldn’t predict:

  • Middle school and high school students
  • Military personnel
  • Student-athletes
  • University students

A new survey funded by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention discovered that 94 percent of us believe suicide is preventable. Scientists have established that the destructive urge to commit suicide is fleeting. If we could come up with ways to better identify potential victims and offer coping mechanisms as well, we might be able to reduce the number of young people committing suicide.

Most of us know that when young adults have suicidal thoughts, it stems from:

  • Loneliness
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Being bullied
  • Feeling anxious or depressed
  • Hopelessness

To be clear, some students suffer from extreme mental health issues and need both counseling and medication. However, most are likely kids who need to learn how to navigate life’s stresses that come to all of us. In her research on “grit,” Dr. Angela Duckworth suggests that millions of teens haven’t developed the grit or resilience that our grandparents’ generation had decades ago. For many, even the smallest of setbacks makes them spiral downward emotionally. A bad grade. A breakup. An injury. A bully. Getting cut from the team or the cast. FOMO. Believe it or not, I’ve seen these very obstacles cause suicidal thoughts in students.

It is imperative we equip them to navigate these obstacles.

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms Students Use

Quite predictably, many teens today migrate toward coping mechanisms that utilize technology. Our smartphones, video games, and streamed content are a quick fix to distract us from our problems. Kids simply default to what brings them comfort. Unfortunately, students frequently fail to consider the negative impact of those mechanisms. Let me remind you of some of the most common ones:

  1. Scrolling on smartphones. Sadly, this can make them even more anxious.
  2. Vaping. Sadly, this can be addictive rather than liberating or strengthening.
  3. Posting selfies. Sadly, these are only distracting and make us narcissistic.
  4. Binge watching videos. Sadly, this just artificially medicates our problems.

Healthy Coping Mechanisms Students Can Use

So what can we do to equip everyday students who feel this way? Are there coping skills they can employ to combat these emotions? When psychologists or therapists use the term “coping skills,” it’s a positive term. They are healthy habits to navigate stressful situations. They require hard work, but these skills are healthy and helpful:

1. Meditation and breathing.

I’ve written about this before. Often, stopping to breathe slowly and deliberately can untangle an anxious mind. Meditating on positive truths or good memories both can reduce anxiety. It enables us to focus on constructive thoughts, even our own growth, and see a larger picture. Many today call this mindfulness and I find it very helpful.

2. Calling a trusted friend.

Everyone should have at least one person in their life who they can call and gain a listening ear, an empathetic heart and a change in perspective. John Crosby said, “Mentors are a brain to pick, a shoulder to cry on, and a kick in the seat of the pants.” I know many students who recovered from hopelessness by instantly calling a friend.

3. Serving others meaningfully.

Any act of service to others gets your mind off of yourself. While I know the problem may not be this simple, adding value to someone else cultivates the best in all of us. This has been proven over and over again. I am most prone to feel melancholy when I focus on myself.  Looking outward almost always helps restore hope.

4. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

This term, CBT, has surfaced as a helpful coping tool for anyone who feels hopeless or anxious. It represents logical thinking, instead of emotional reasoning. Suicidal thoughts come from cognitive distortions. CBT forces us to challenge hopeless voices in our heads and exchange them for positive reasoning and true self-affirmations.

I encourage you to look these up and study them. We have to find a way to offer hope to hopeless students.