Note: This article is part 2 on teen suicide in a series by Mary Glenn, youth worker, law enforcement chaplain and Fuller Theological Seminary faculty member. You can read part 1 about responding to suicide here.
I was asleep when the phone rang. It was about 11:30 p.m. One of my students was on the line.
“Hi Mary, I just wanted to say thank you for all you have done for me. And I wanted to say goodbye.”
By the time I responded, he had already hung up. This student had expressed sadness over a recent breakup. I knew he was depressed, and I believed he had access to a gun. I quickly realized that this was not a routine phone call. This was his goodbye call to me. I had to react now!
But what do I do? I immediately called one of my volunteer leaders to call the student back and find out where he was. Then I called the police. This situation needed an immediate response.
Thankfully, the student survived. He is now a healthy, joyful adult with a family. But this was a pivotal moment in his life.
In part 1 of this series on teen suicide (In the Aftermath of Suicide: Helping Communities Heal), we talked about the realities of suicide and what we can do when our own schools, neighborhoods, or churches encounter it first-hand. In part 2, we will explore how can we turn suicide response into prevention. What can we do to stop teen suicides before they happen?
Indicators and signs to look out for
As someone who loves teenagers, you can increase your awareness of teens who might be struggling with depression and contemplating suicide. Here are some of the indicators to watch for:
- Changes in behavior (i.e. school performance)
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- A victim of bullying
- Social isolation or social withdrawal
- Showing signs of depression including loss of pleasure, frequent sad mood, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, feelings of hopelessness, irritability, feelings of failure or shame
- Giving away prized possessions
- Threatening suicide, expressing suicidal feelings directly, or bringing up the topic of suicide
- Developed a plan for suicide
In response to indicators like these, here are some things we can do to help:
- Remain calm
- Engage them in conversation
- Ask them if they are contemplating suicide
- Listen and be present
- Remind them of your care and love for them
- Accept their feelings
- Be compassionate and understanding
- Reassure them that there is help
- Do not judge
- Develop a plan for help
Ask them if they have thought of a plan for suicide. If so, don’t leave them alone. Remove any means for self-harm, and contact necessary parties (parents, police). 1
Most importantly, if a young person asks you to keep a secret about their contemplating suicide, that is a secret you can neither make nor keep. You can say, “I want you to know you can trust me, but I need you to know that I can’t keep what you just shared a secret. I’m going to walk with you through this process of telling your parents. You will not be alone in this.”
Remember, no one should handle this situation alone. Building partnerships with parents, mental health professionals and school staff in your community will be key. In fact, part of prevention is building ongoing relationships with these community partners such that when a tense situation arises, you know who to call (and so do they) for additional support.
Be a voice of hope
In any community, teens can feel lost, overwhelmed, hurt, confused, alone, and disconnected. All young people have needs for attachment, affirmation, and a sense that their lives matter. These needs quickly become thrust to the surface when they aren’t being met and when adolescent emotions run high. Jeremiah 17:9-10 in The Message translation reads, “The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out. But I, God, search the heart and examine the mind. I get to the heart of the human. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are, not as they pretend to be.” God perceives things as they really are. When teens face disappointment and rejection, these feelings may deceive them into believing things are worse than they really are and may convince them that there is no hope. Suicide becomes a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Teenagers may feel trapped in their circumstances. They want to stop the pain. Sometimes the first thing we can do—and perhaps the most consistent support we can offer—is to give young people an anchor of hope.
Without jumping too quickly to platitudes, verses like Hebrews 6:19 can be helpful as we counsel and pray with young people: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” An anchor is what keeps a ship grounded, connected, and steady in the midst of storms. We may similarly find ourselves drifting in life or in our emotions, but hope, the anchor of our souls, reminds us of who we are and whose we are. Hebrews 10:23 follows, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful”. Jesus has better things ahead. He has purpose for our students’ lives. Our perception of hope can change based on our feelings and emotions, and for some young people, the fight can be overwhelming and paralyzing.
As youth workers, mentors, and family members who care about teenagers, we can be a voice of hope. Speaking hope and future into students’ lives is a first step in helping them work through pain. What isn’t helpful is minimizing their pain or promising them that everything will be okay. From my training in intervention and suicide prevention, here are a few examples of what to say in a situation like this:
- “I am so sorry that you are going through this. I am here with you now; you are not alone. Together we will find you the help you need.”
- “Right now it may feel like there is no way out, but the way you are feeling will change.”
- “I may not know exactly what you are feeling, but I care about you and I want to help.”
From suicide completion to suicide prevention
In the aftermath of actual teen suicide, friends and classmates can be left confused and sad. There are ways we can help our students work through their feelings and emotions, even potential thoughts they may have about suicide, including:
- Acknowledging what happened
- Asking about their feelings
- Honestly answering questions about suicide
- Asking the young person if they are thinking about suicide
- Reminding them to talk to adults if they have concerns (and you can help them come up with a list of people to talk to). 2
- Remembering the student who committed suicide, celebrating their life, and remembering it annually (i.e. planting a tree in their memory, sharing stories about them).
A few years ago I responded as the law enforcement chaplain to the suicide of a popular, beloved 16-year-old student. He was involved in sports and service clubs, and was loved by both students and teachers. I led debriefs for teachers, students, friends, and family. His funeral drew the attention of the community with almost 1,000 in attendance at his memorial service. As chaplains responding to the crisis, we worked in partnership with school staff, parents, crisis counselors, and others.
People from across the community came to try to make sense of this tragedy. Why would this student, who seemed to have it all, take his own life? His memorial service was conducted by three law enforcement chaplains; his death provided an opportunity for us to educate people about suicide prevention.
During the memorial service, we spoke from John 12:24, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We handed out stalks of wheat and encouraged the students to live their lives to the fullest. The memory of their friend now lives in them. We encouraged them to tell others that they care for them and reach out to those who may feel hopeless. When the seed dies, hope, life, and purpose can result.
Grieving and remembering together is an important step in the healing process. Life can come from loss, and death and pain can be redeemed. Together we can work to prevent teen suicide.
- Develop partnerships in your community with mental health professionals, school staff, and parents. Working in collaboration with all of your partners in the community requires that there is ongoing communication before the crisis and that everyone knows the role they play in students’ lives. Of course there can be overlap in care, but we want to make sure that all the people in a student’s life will cover the needs the student has.
- Observe if there are there any indicators that any of your students may be at risk (see the list in the first section). What kind of action steps will you take?
- Mentor a student. Play a proactive role in a young person’s life. Work to find other mentors in your community for those young people who seem most at-risk for suicide or other threats.
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.
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.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention www.afsp.org
Los Angeles County Youth Suicide Prevention project www.preventsuicide.lacoe.edu
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Suicide Prevention Resource Center www.sprc.org
The Trevor Project www.thetrevorproject.org
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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