In the aftermath of teen suicide
Helping communities heal
Photo by Vitaly
“Student committed suicide, please call ASAP”.
The text flashed across my phone while I was sitting in my Tuesday night Bible study. It’s the kind of text I have received countless times before, and it’s never easy to read. A 14-year-old boy killed himself after school. As the local senior law enforcement chaplain, I was called in to provide support, grief care, and help to school personnel who were dealing with this trauma.
When I arrived at the school the next morning, I was asked to meet in the vice-principal’s office with the student’s teachers and guidance counselors. These staff members were in shock, wrestling with grief and guilt. They asked the “What if” questions; What if I missed something? What if I could have stopped him from doing this? What if I would have known the pain he was in?
One of the student’s teachers stated, “There is nothing you can say that will convince me that it isn’t my fault. I missed the signs. I could have stopped it.” What someone feels in that moment is real—as real as it can get. I can’t talk someone out of feeling guilt, but what I can do is listen with care, offer compassion, and help people understand some of the dynamics of suicide.
As youth leaders, mentors, and those invested in young people, suicide rates should concern us. The decade prior to the COVID pandemic saw a 36% increase in suicidal behaviors among high school students. This worrying trend combined with the added physical and social isolation for teenagers throughout the pandemic caused the Surgeon General to issue a public advisory. Why are so many kids killing themselves, and how can we begin to understand the complexities of this issue? When kids commit suicide, the community is left with questions, grief, and anger. What can we do to help communities heal from this trauma?
Suicide rates remain too high
Young people are killing themselves at alarming rates. For ages 10-24, suicide is the second leading cause of death. In fact, more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.
We need to be concerned not just about completed suicides, but also about suicide attempts. Teens attempt suicide more often than complete it. A nationwide survey of youth in grades 9–12 in public and private schools found that 18.8% of students nationwide reported seriously considering suicide, 15.7% of students had made a plan about how they would attempt suicide, and 8.9% of students had attempted suicide more than once. All teens are at risk, but the last decade has seen a significant increase in among female students having attempted suicide (from 8.1% to 11.0%), and incidences of attempted suicide were nearly four times higher LGBTQ students (23.4%) than their heterosexual peers (6.4%). Culture also plays a role in who attempts and completes suicides. Among our most at-risk teens are Native American/Alaskan Native youth (who have the highest rate of suicide-related fatalities) and and Black students (who report the highest number of suicide attempts).
Why are so many kids killing themselves?
We will never know exactly why a student took their life, but there are ways to recognize and identify if a teen may be in trouble. Potential teen suicide risk factors include:
- access to lethal methods
- depression/mental illness
- divorce/family changes
- drug/alcohol abuse, alcoholism in the home
- exposure to domestic violence
- family history of suicide
- feeling that their life doesn’t matter, lack of self-worth/value
- feeling that people don’t know/care for them
- history of previous suicide attempts
- identity issues
- lack of community/isolation
- moving to a new/different community
- physical, sexual abuse or emotional neglect
- stressful event
- victim of bullying
The top three methods used in the suicides of young people include firearms (50%), suffocation (27%), and poisoning (13%). I have found this to be true in my own experience, as the majority of youth suicide cases I’ve responded to involved a firearm, usually belonging to a parent.
Several factors can put a young person at risk for suicide. However, having these risk factors does not always mean that suicide will occur. One of the most significant risk factors for teen suicide is depression. As the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health states, “It is estimated that depression increases the risk of a first suicide attempt by at least 14-fold. Over half of all kids who suffer from depression will eventually attempt suicide at least once.” Further, fifty-three percent of young suicide deaths involve substance abuse.
One study revealed that teens under 18 who lost a parent to suicide were three times more likely to commit suicide than children and teens with parents living. After the 2008 economic downturn, several parents in my community took their own lives due to the financial stress they were facing. I have responded to teen suicides where the young persons’ death was preceded by one of their parents taking their own life. When a teen loses a parent, their vulnerability increases greatly.
Finally, untreated and undiagnosed trauma contributes to feelings of hopelessness that can lead to suicidal actions. Teens are being exposed to trauma at concerning rates. Movies, video games, TV shows, and violent life experiences imprint images on the brains of young people. Our eyes and minds process and record trauma (what we have seen and experienced) in our memory. As a result of this trauma, teens can struggle with flashbacks and disturbing memories and emotions, which if left undiagnosed and untreated, may result in teen suicide.
Suicide is a complex reality
After a suicide, we may find ourselves asking many “why” questions: Why did this happen? Why couldn’t I stop it? Why didn’t I see the signs? We are looking for explanations. Sometimes it’s helpful to keep reminding one another that suicide is one person’s decision. We may feel responsible and blame ourselves, and at the same time be angry that this teenager didn’t even give us a chance to help them. Anger is part of the grief process and a normal reaction to teen suicide. We may be plagued with a complex mixture of emotions such as guilt, anger and lack of closure. All are valid and real.
In the majority of attempted suicide attempts, there were signs. However, it is almost impossible to discern unless you are the person contemplating committing suicide. People mask their emotions. The “What if?” questions won’t bring the person back. Replaying of the last conversations and interactions we had with the student won’t change the reality. One person’s suffering, sadness, and decisions have repercussions that reach deeply into the community.
The deep and ongoing impact of suicide
I was a youth pastor for 15 years and have served as a law enforcement chaplain for almost 15 years. My first chaplain call was to give a death notification to the family of an 18-year-old (the only son in the family) who committed suicide. The parents were confused, sad, and devastated. Their lives were turned upside down on hearing the news.
Suicide can also expose us to trauma as those who help in the aftermath. Trauma is a result of exposure to a critical incident or distressing experience and, if left untreated, it can result in PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or other issues. We can’t control when tragedy happens, but we can help lessen the impact. This is called trauma care. As those who work with young people, we need to care for ourselves so that we can help offer care to others. This may mean finding a safe place to process our own traumatic stress from being part of the situation.
We all grieve differently. It is important that we give ourselves and each other space and time to grieve. Grieving collectively (e.g., funerals) plays a key role. Together we can remember our lost loved one. Sometimes one death can bring up previous loss and grief. While I was talking with one of the teachers of the 14-year-old who committed suicide, she was filled with grief not just from the recent student suicide but also from an accidental student death ten months previous. Both of the students were in her class. She was feeling the loss of the first student as she was processing the reality of the second student’s death.
Best practices for healing
The loss of suicide brings permanent changes. In the aftermath of death, we enter into what is sometimes called the “new normal.” We long to return to the days of old, before this loss. The reality is, we can’t. We must step into the new normal and find ways to deal with the loss. Grief is an important part of this process, and it is imperative that we grieve well. (Learn more about healthy grief in this article by Kimberly Williams) In the article “A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned about Trauma”, Catherine Woodiwiss offers several best practices in dealing with trauma and grief, including:
Be present with people
Healing takes time
Grieving and healing are both social experiences
Don’t offer cliches or comparison
Allow people to tell their own stories
Recovering from teen suicide certainly takes time. But we are not guaranteed that we will be stronger after this, or that we will find full healing. Be careful not to make promises to yourself or anyone else that this will be the case.
Below are some additional guidelines that will help us find healing for ourselves as well as those around us who are struggling with the grief following teen suicide:
- Ministry of presence. We can embody the peace and presence of God by being present with others, sitting with people in the midst of their pain. During our own grief we need not isolate ourselves, but rather invite community to journey with us.
- It’s not okay, but it won’t always be this way. Clichés we use on ourselves and with others can bring more pain. The fact that this student was in pain and took their own life changes us all forever. Yet things won’t always be this way. Eventually we can begin to rebuild life after loss.
- Face down the guilt, shame, and anger. We may feel like we could have done something. Going down that road won’t bring them back. The teen we loved made a decision and took their own life. They are gone and we can’t change that. But the emotions we feel are real, and we need to create healthy space for feelings to be expressed.
- We can’t change the fact that a teen took their life, but we can lessen the impact of the death on our community. Participating in group processes like CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management) debriefs can mediate the impact because they offer opportunities to talk through the loss with others. CISM is a process by which we discuss what happened, what we saw, felt, experienced, etc. in a group setting with others who are going through this with us. This isn’t equivalent to professional therapy, but is a way to lessen the intensity of the loss by giving a safe space in a group guided by a facilitator. Professional therapy, pastoral counseling, and grief counseling can also assist in community healing. Be sure to be prepared with referrals of local helpers for young people and their families.
- Acknowledge the impact of the death imprint. When we see or experience something traumatic, our brain takes a picture of what we see or what we can imagine. That death imprint stays with us. Smells, sights, and sounds might cause the memory and pain from that event to be recalled. Be patient and sensitive with yourself and with others when this happens.
- God is with us. In the midst of the loss and pain, we must remember that God is always with us. In Psalm 32:7 we are reminded that God keeps and surrounds us: “You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance.” Feeling alone with our grief can overwhelming. But we are promised that God is with us.
- Cling to hope! Even when we don’t feel it, hope is there. In the midst of losing our loved one, hope helps us to see what is ahead and to look to the future rather than being stuck in the present and past.
[Read more: In the aftermath of suicide, part 2: Working toward prevention]
- Assess your own grief process and management in dealing with loss and death. What are your best self-care practices?
- Read an article or book on loss and grief. Discuss it with your small group or in community with other leaders. How does your ministry handle loss and death well? What could you put in place to respond better?
- Begin building (or revisit and strengthen) a database of local caregivers who can help after tragedies like suicide or other deaths.
- Learn more about suicide prevention and warning sign. Part 2 of this article will provide more tips for prevention.
Nurture steady faith in a stressful world.
Faith in an Anxious World is a 4-week multimedia curriculum will equip you with the tools you need to guide young people in your ministry, linking anxiety and depression with conversations about discipleship and faithful living. Together you’ll reflect on New Testament stories, watch Jesus enter into anxious situations with his disciples, and explore life in an anxious but hope-filled world.
If you’re worried about the safety of a teenager you know, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away: 1-800-273-TALK or suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The 3-digit 988 hotline may also be available in your area.
In addition, the Steve Fund Crisis Text Line is dedicated to the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color that can be reached by texting STEVE to 741-741 or visiting stevefund.org/crisistextline.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) www.aacap.org
American Association of Suicidology (AAS) www.suicidology.org
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention www.afsp.org
Glover, Beryl S. and Glenda Stansbury. The Empty Chair: The Journey of Grief After Suicide.
Hsu, Albert Y. Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope.
Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed.
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) www.nami.org
National Mental Health Association (NMHA) www.nmha.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
New Hope Grief Support Community www.newhopegrief.org
Shaw, Luci. God in the Dark: Through Grief and Beyond.
Steel, Danielle. His Bright Light: The Story of Nick Traina. Delacorte Press, 1998.
Suicide Prevention Resource Center www.sprc.org
The Centering Corp (Grief Resources): www.centering.org
The Trevor Project www.thetrevorproject.org
Yancey, Philip. The Question That Never Goes Away (Why).
Youth.gov Suicide Prevention www.youth.gov/youth-topics/youth-suicide-prevention
Amazon Affiliate links are included in this blog post. FYI earns from qualifying orders placed through links in this post.
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