Experts agree, the teenage years can present a whole host of pressures – most of which can easily be managed with the right support from parents and caregivers. There are particular pressures, however, that if unrecognized and allowed to fester, can compel youth to take their own drastic measures to cope.
With proper awareness and exposure to positive stories of inspiration, teens can change their outlook says Prof. Gordon Flett of York University’s LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research.
He points to all-star pitcher and Toronto Blue Jay R.A. Dickey as someone who overcame the odds.
With the release of his autobiography in 2012 ‘Wherever I Wind up: My Quest for Truth’ came the revelation that Dickey had been harbouring a devastating secret for most of his life: he had been sexually assaulted as a child. To cope, he turned inward and away from his family.
“As one illustration of his feeling of isolation, Dickey would break into empty houses so he could sleep alone and didn’t have to go home,” Flett says.
Tormented by the abuse he suffered as a child coupled with early career setbacks, Dickey contemplated suicide for a time. It was after nearly drowning in the Missouri River his perspective on life changed.
“Here’s an example of someone who got a second chance and went on to become the best pitcher in the league,” Flett says.
Experts who deal with suicide from across the province say youth contemplating suicide may be dealing with a number of risk factors including isolation, perfectionism, stress, imitation, the topic’s prevalence in public discussion, as well as a need for instant gratification.
The drive for perfection amounts to “a huge proportion” of suicide, particularly in youth, according to Flett, whose collaborative work on perfectionism with Dr. Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia has received widespread national and international attention. Many people put on a front or “social mask” so even close friends and family don’t realize the extent of the pain they’re experiencing.
“We get contacted by families who say, ‘We didn’t see the signs; (the suicide) happened without warning,’” Flett says. “Sometimes these people can be so good at hiding the signs, but it’s important for families to know that this is common.”
However, family members and friends need to be aware if everything seems too perfect. Flett advises parents to look out for their teens if they are no longer feeling or seeming like their old self. Open up a dialogue, he says.
Parents need to demonstrate to their teen that they care. Their child needs to know he or she matters; that their love is not contingent on unreachable expectations. Parents should not be afraid to share some of the mistakes they’ve made or how they overcame a difficult period in their lives.
In a conversation with school teachers, who asked him what they could do when they see kids who are pushed to the limit, Flett advised them to be that person teens can open up to, to assure them that they are not alone.
“They need to know the statistics, that others at the same age feel the same way,” Flett says. “Adolescence is a difficult time for everyone.”
Sheeba Narikuzhy, clinical supervisor at East Metro Youth Services, says there can be a range of warning signs for youth thinking about suicide, including significant changes in eating and sleeping habits; withdrawal from friends, family and activities; an unusual behaviour or unusual neglect of appearance; and a teen’s decline in school performance or attendance.
“Be aware of talk of suicide, even in a joking way,” she says.
Sudden or dramatic changes in personality should get parents’ attention. If teens become happy and calm after a long period of moodiness and anger, perhaps they’ve made a decision about ending their life or, if they have begun to give away prized possessions, seemingly for no reason.
“The risk factors can be biological, whether teens have mental health issues, like depression, anxiety or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder),” Narikuzhy says. “There are social risk factors: victimization by peers; bullying or cyber-bullying or conflict with peers – it could be a romantic relationship breakdown or a change in friendship like a fight. For teens, their social and peer circle is very important.”
Social media can have an influence on whether a teen takes his or her own life. Suicide can become contagious when it is glorified online, Narikuzhy says.
Oftentimes, schools are hesitant to publicize or talk about suicide for fear there will be imitation. Flett confirms suicide is more likely to occur among teens whose friends have committed the act.
“If a parent knows their child is vulnerable, be vigilant, keep eyes open,” Flett says. “There is added depression when someone close takes his or her own life. They (wonder) ‘wasn’t knowing me enough?’”
We as a society are better off talking about suicide, yet it’s important how we broach the subject, Flett says.
“What I would advocate is for parents to do their own research, but more information should be more readily available,” he says.
Hopelessness is the number one psychological indication of suicide, the feeling of never being able to meet expectations and feeling socially disconnected, according to Flett.
There is a broad range of conditions where teens may have suicidal thoughts, agrees Dr. Michelle Marshall, a psychiatrist at St. Joseph’s Health Centre’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health department.
They might be struggling with depression, panic attacks, addiction or sexual orientation. Discussing mental health issues should be as basic as talking about sex education, she says.
“Parents need to start talking about the issue to normalize it,” she says. “Have a conversation with your child. Ask the child what’s going on, ask ‘how can I help?’ Children and teens do best when they have a confiding relationship with at least one of their parents.”
Family doctors are your first point of contact, says the psychiatrist.
Most of the time, teens and youth do not want to die. They want to “kill” the problem and the pain – not themselves, stresses Narikuzhy.
“Teens who are going through extreme emotional pain will say I don’t want to die, but I don’t see any other way,” she says.