How Can We Keep Teens From Killing Themselves?

New research shows how being more self-compassionate can help.

Posted Apr 15, 2018

“My son Benji reminds me of Lovejoy, the glowing green comet that visited earth a few years ago for the first time in 11,500 years. Both are beautiful and rare, other-worldly phenomena transiting my life.

Benji died by suicide on May 7, 2015, at age 15. I still struggle sometimes to believe this isn’t just a bad dream…I had no inkling that this was coming. Shock, trauma and grief were overwhelming.  The day Benji died and the weeks thereafter are a horrific blur for me. There’s really nothing that can be done to diminish that grief.  It will be with me always.”

-Cynthia Osterman, mother of Benji

Suicide rates among teens have skyrocketed over the last five years. In 2015 compared to 2007, twice as many teen boys and three times as many girls took their own lives. Anxiety, depression, and stress levels are through the roof, increasing by 50% for girls and 21% for boys from 2012-2015. In 2016 in colleges across the nation, 61% of students felt overwhelming anxiety, 39% were so depressed it was difficult to function, 62% felt very lonely, and 10% seriously considered suicide.

These statistics are alarming, and should horrify any of us who care about our youth.

tjook/Flickr
Source: tjook/Flickr

Clearly, the stressors teens face today outweigh many teens’ capacity to cope. How then can we support teens? What can we do to help them find ways to mitigate their overburdening stressors? How can we reach across the years that separate us and provide a safety net until the point where they can stand on their own?

Teaching self-compassion can help. Described as treating yourself with the kindness and care that you treat a good friend when suffering, self-compassion encompasses three components:

  • Mindfulness (having a balanced perspective when dealing with emotionally challenging events)
  • Common humanity (understanding that our struggles are part of the experience of being human)
  • Self-kindness (treating ourselves kindly when we struggle, the way we treat our good friends)

Research has shown that teens who are more self-compassion are less anxious, stressed, and depressed, and are protected against many of the negative consequences of low self-esteem, victimization, and traumatic events. Programs have therefore been designed to teach teens the tools of mindfulness and self-compassion. Over the course of these programs, teens learn that they are not alone in their struggles and don’t need to beat themselves up when they make mistakes. One teen who took the course while she was hospitalized for anorexia described the course as “eye-opening.”

Research studies report that as self-compassion and mindfulness increase over the course of these programs, stress, anxiety, and depression decrease. Teens report that they are more resilient, more satisfied with their lives, and experience more positive moods.

Consistently, teens talk about how these courses have changed the way they see themselves and their lives:

  • A 15-year old boy said that he no longer worries about others liking him because … “I like me!”
  • Another teen summed up how her way of handling stress had changed since taking the class “Like stressful situations and stuff happens… I’m able to handle it more easily and more quickly, and able to calm myself down and put it into perspective.”
  • A high school female said, “I feel more comfortable with myself… feel more in my skin I guess.”
  • Yet another teen realized “I always feel that I have to have someone else to prove that I can do things. But I have myself, and that is someone!”

Offering teens the possibility of being kinder to themselves through self-compassion may not be a panacea, and likely not the only way to address the escalating suicide rate. But it clearly has the potential to make a difference.

After Benji’s death, it became clear to me that the path to less suffering and greater well-being for adolescents (and all of us) was through greater self-acceptance.

I founded a nonprofit called The Benji Project with a mission of offering self-compassion programs  to adolescents in my area, where we have a much higher than average number of teens who report that they have seriously considered suicide.

Self-compassion has helped me heal. It is a powerful tool to relieve suffering and improve coping for teens. This work is my way of loving Benji and the world.

 -Cynthia Osterman, mother of Benji, and founder of The Benji Project