I can still remember a guy I knew in high school named Eugene. He was in a drafting class with me and he sat at the next table. I didn’t know much about Eugene, but I could tell he had low self-esteem and was shy and quiet. I befriended him that year, him being a junior and me being a senior. Eugene didn’t seem to have many friends; in fact, I had never noticed him before we were in a class together for the 2 1/2 years he attended high school.
During class, I remember a girl, Lisa, who would purposely be mean to Eugene, often telling him he was “gross,” or just saying other mean things to Eugene. It wasn’t as if Eugene did or said something to her to provoke her, she felt it was her duty to bully Eugene for some strange reason, probably because Eugene didn’t seem to fit in. He wasn’t popular, dressed kind of geeky and was too quiet. He would never defend himself to her, he was resigned to listen and take his licks as if he deserved to be bullied. I would defend him sometimes, setting her up one time so she looked foolish for Eugene, who enjoyed every minute of that event. As the semester continued, one day Eugene didn’t show up for school. Then I heard the horrible news that he had committed suicide. I thought, “why didn’t he talk to me or someone else about how he was feeling?” Surely Eugene could have found some kind of help, but as is with so many suicidal people, hope is a commodity in short supply, and they often keep to themselves.
As the story unfolded, I found out that Eugene had a stepbrother. His stepbrother was the “star” of the family, played sports, was good looking and was favored by his parents. Apparently, Eugene had asked a girl to the junior prom and she refused him. His brother asked the same girl and she said yes. This proved to be the final straw in Eugene’s life of struggle.
To look back at this incident, I think, “this was senseless,” like any other act of suicide. I also realize that there were many signs that many people ignored in not understanding how much suffering and struggle Eugene was feeling. He had classic symptoms of teen depression and suicide risk that we, as a community, and within the schools themselves, need to be aware and educated about.
One of the symptoms of major depression is isolation. Eugene isolated from others, and it was obvious that he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin, which represents another symptom of depression, low self-esteem.
A large predictor of suicide with youth, and in general, is that 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a mental health issue going on in their life such as depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance abuse along with other stressors and issues. With Eugene, he was obviously depressed and disconnected from others. This is not always the case with some individuals who do not show obvious symptoms of being suicidal. What does become apparent afterwards, is that usually these kids are not connecting to others or themselves about their own feelings, and possibly have an undiagnosed mental health problem that they themselves do not understand. Yet, 50 percent of adolescents who attempt suicide tell someone about feeling suicidal before they attempt. This is an obvious cry for help from a person who feels helpless, but is trying to tell someone else how poorly they are feeling.
To students: In the case of a person like Eugene, he never told anyone how he was truly feeling, but the signs that he was not feeling well were evident. I am very glad to know that Lassen High School has a Suicide Task Force that involves students in the high school. Students can truly be the front lines in helping prevent a fellow student from committing suicide by paying attention and through continual education to the signs of depression and suicide. Voluntary peer involvement within the schools with students who will rise to the common call to try to help others who seem to be struggling is needed. Clubs and advertised places to go within the schools, known teachers and students can be helpful to the suicidal person or as a people that a friend of a suicidal person can turn to talk to about their suicidal friend.
A common myth about suicide is that if you talk about suicide, that it makes matters worse. This is not true, and normalizing that people feel depressed, confused, and sometimes hopeless after a break up, because of family issues, or whatever the reasons, needs to be known so other students know that they are not alone. How many students, like me, after the fact, started to think about a fellow student’s behavior after they committed suicide? Do you see a person who seems isolated away from others? With some kids, we may know what kind of family they come from, others we don’t. We may also know if they just went through a difficult time in their life like a break up or a major family crisis. If you are a student, do not be afraid to make a friend of someone who seems disconnected from others. I know that peer pressure is strong predictor of how people interact in school systems, but do your best to reach out or tell a teacher if you believe someone you know is suicidal.
Sometimes friends might ask you not to tell adults, parents or others, that they are suicidal, but this is an unfair request to ask you. You are being asked to carry a burden and worry about this person and are not supposed to tell anyone. What happens if they do commit suicide and you knew they were suicidal? It places responsibility on you that is not yours to keep, guilt that is not yours to own and worry that belongs to someone else. I have literally had several people within my 27 years as a counselor who I placed into a psychiatric hospital who were very mad at me when I put them in for their safety. Several thanked me later when they were not suicidal, and life was much better for them. So please, if you know of someone who is suicidal, or even at risk of possibly being suicidal, tell someone. Not all people who feel suicidal end up in the hospital. Many times, through a plan with parents and others, once a person starts to talk about how they are feeling instead of bottling up their feelings, they start to get better.
If you are concerned about anyone you know being suicidal, ask them if they are suicidal, be genuine in connecting with them, incorporate others as needed and take all suicide talk seriously. Sometimes people will start giving valuable items away to others, things that mean something to them and giving these things away doesn’t make sense. This is often a sign of that the person has decided to commit suicide and they want to make sure the people they love get the right items. If they seem like they are acting differently, or weird, don’t be afraid to ask them if they are OK. Trust your instincts, especially if you know them, or that small voice inside keeps talking to you about them.
To the suicidal student: One of the problems with people who are suicidal is that they have what I call “pretzel logic.” What this means is that they truly start to believe that their parents and other people would be better off without them. This twisted way of thinking is reinforced by their depression or anxiety. This is why it is so important to tell others if you are suicidal or if you know someone who is suicidal. If you are suicidal, it is never better for your parents, brother(s), sister(s), grandparents or friends. It always leaves them with feelings of emptiness and sadness. They love you! They want to see you alive and well. You are not a burden! You are young and life is long. Situations that seem so devastating now can change and what seems so overwhelming and sad for you now, in the near future, can completely change. The first step for you is to tell someone else how you are feeling. After that, life will get better for you. What you need are other people to help and support you, not silence. An old saying goes, “This too shall pass.” This is a phrase used by many people over many years to remind you that you may be feeling poorly now, you may not have hope now, you may want to end it all, but those feelings will pass and life will change. Give yourself a chance to grow up and experience life. High school is not the end of life; it is only a small part of life. There is so much more waiting for you if you just start talking about your feelings to others.
To the parents: Our children are growing up in a different world than we did. Added to bullying, are cellphones and social media connections that many of us never had growing up, and do not know about. Because of cellphones, it is as if our kids have these private worlds that are out of our jurisdiction, but that is not really true. I am not advocating looking at your teenager’s cellphone every day, but once in a while, especially if you see any signs of depression, don’t be afraid of their reactions and resistance. Limiting their social networking can also help to avoid people, places and things that are not healthy for our teenagers. I have heard stories of teens, who while in school, were made fun of by others through social media that went to others within the school that day. They became a joke, and their embarrassment was monumental for them.
Another very important area of your teen’s life is their friends. Research shows that during the teen years, friends matter just as much as parents. That is a radical statement, but it is true. Knowing who your kids are hanging around with and what they like to do is important. Being able to talk to your teenager or preteen about their friends and feelings is an important relationship dynamic to cultivate. Sometimes we need help from others. A school counselor, teacher, therapist, any person who might be able to help your child figure things out when they feel depressed is worth trying. Research shows that teenagers who attend youth groups at churches have a 25 percent less suicide rate because they have someone else to talk to about their problems, which include the youth pastor(s), others at the group and a belief that God cares about them, even if they do not understand their life events at the time.
In adolescent depression, one of the main symptoms can be an increase in irritability and anger. This is a warning sign for parents and for friends of students. If your teenager or preteen is acting different, more irritable than your average onery teenager, try asking them some questions about their life. Many times, us as parents want to react to their irritability as disrespect. Maybe they are not feeling well and need your help.
Some parents who have had a contentious divorce for years, need to learn to parent without anger and without placing your child in the middle of your battle. These “control battles” do not let your child remain a child. Parents, talk to your kids, tell them you love them, hold them, even if they are teenagers. We all need to know we matter in this world, especially when you are a teenager.