The voice on the phone sounded desperate. “You have to help,” she said, “it’s a matter of life and death.” At first, I thought my friend, Sarah was being melodramatic until she said, “My fourteen-year-old niece, Debbie says she wants to die.” Her words brought back my memory of a guest psychologist asking a classroom of teenagers how many had ever thought about suicide and almost all of them raised their hands. At a later meeting with the parents, he told them how their children responded to his question. After their collective gasp, he said, “Talk of suicide must be taken seriously, no ifs, ands, or buts!”
The following Youth Suicide Statistics taken from The Parent Resource Program on the JasonFoundation.com website should make clear the imperative of taking seriously any teenager’s remark about killing herself/himself, no matter how casual:
· For middle and high school age youth (ages 12-18), suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death.
· For college age youth (ages 18-22), suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death.
· Overall, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for our youth ages 10-24.
· The third leading cause of death in ages 10-14, an alarming 128% increase in suicides since 1980.
· More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
· Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,400 attempts by young people grades 7-12.
· Four out of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs.
I asked Sarah what Debbie’s parents are doing about it, “Nothing, absolutely nothing,” she replied. Now shaken, I asked her what she felt I could do and she said, “Persuade the parents to get professional help.” So I called the mother, an old friend of mine, and she agreed to meet with me. From the moment we met, Ida seemed nervous and fidgety. Then, as if she knew my reason for meeting with her, she said, “You know someone is spreading lies about my Hillary that she wants to kill herself. Isn’t that terrible?” “Well,” I asked, “has she ever mentioned it to anyone?” “All the kids say it, it’s no big deal,” she hastily replied. When I told her that any mention of suicide needs to be taken seriously, her face reddened, and she said, “there is absolutely nothing wrong with my daughter and I am very upset that people are spreading lies about her.” “But, Ida,” I whispered, “suppose it isn’t a lie.” At that, she got up from the table and said, “You stop meddling! I know my daughter and I know she wouldn’t do such a thing to me!”
Ida was terrified – paralyzed with fear. The notion that something so drastic could occur to her prevented her from being able to face horrific possibilities about her daughter. She couldn’t bear the thought that she could have a disturbed child and, beyond that, facing the related intimation that she might somehow have “failed” as a mother.
Parents of kids with less serious problems also deny the seriousness of their children’s troubles. Their disappointment in their children reaches the level of a lost hope – the hope we all have for our children to be healthy and happy and successful. Perhaps before they can face their children’s troubling realities, these parents need to mourn the loss of that dream – or at least accept that it may need to be deferred.
So what will help parents move past their fears and get help for their child? Where will they find the strength to take the necessary action to save, not only their child, but themselves from a lifetime of guilt and regret should the child make good on his or her threat?
Listen to your heart. It will know that something is amiss and it will urge you to accept the possibility of painful realities, for your child’s sake as well as your own. Early professional intervention can start you on the path of healing and conciliation.
In my 30 years working with families whose children were in destructive cults, the mountain of differences between parents and their sons and daughters seemed insurmountable. Misunderstandings, resentments, and old unfinished business from childhood kept them at a distance from one another. Yet, with professional help, many of these parents and children were able not just to reconcile but to establish relationships warmer, closer, and far more honest than they had ever been.
Have courage, parents – courage to work for and achieve the kind of relationship you wanted from the start.
Baltimore County Crisis Response System
First Call for Help (all types of referrals)
Phone: 410-685-0525 or 211
Grassroots Crisis Line - suicide intervention hotline
Maryland Youth Crisis - suicide and other interventions