This week is National Suicide Prevention Week. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that Americans attempt suicide 1 MILLION times annually. Untreated depression is the number one cause of teen suicide.
When I was a child, I knew I felt a little different. I had big ideas, but it was challenging to find everything I needed to carry them out. (Or my mom’s version: I got into EVERYTHING and it took both her and my grandma’s constant attention to keep track of me.) I enjoyed pleasing the adults who I felt understood me and was adept at hoodwinking those who did not. I was a handful.
When school began, I quickly assessed which teachers “got” me, and which didn’t. I remember my kindergarten, second and fourth grade teachers well – they saw me and it was easy to shine for them. As I found adults who understood me, my peers identified with me less. They spent recess making fun and teasing me with the familiar chant, “Teacher’s Pet, Teacher’s Pet”. I didn’t like it, but I had a safe place inside the school with teachers who challenged and supported me. I didn’t mind being my teacher’s pet one bit.
I moved several times during late elementary school. Some dynamics were constant. I was still an outlier. I was still teased at recess. The most dramatic change was the attitude of my new teachers. Instead of getting to know me better and providing a safe place for me to thrive, they would blatantly turn their back and ignore the playground bullying, adding to the fray with sarcastic or hurtful comments of their own. I knew how to deal with kid-size bullying. I was not prepared for the teachers to be on the bullying side.
The preteen years are an impressionable age and I began to feel worthless. By my teen years, I felt lonely, depressed and completely misunderstood. Some nights, suicide felt like it might be a good friend. I couldn’t tell my family – they didn’t even realize that anything was bothering me. I wanted to handle my life and my worries myself, and telling them I felt so bad that I wanted to die would be a failure of the worst degree.
This was many years ago, but the same scenario persists for many teens. Years of feeling misunderstood, bullied and alone in addition to hormone changes and our increasingly stressful school environments can lead teens to feel as if there is no hope and nowhere to turn.
Teens, especially gifted teens, often keep their feelings of failure, depression and stories of being bullied to themselves. They say they don’t want to worry their families, they feel like no one will take them seriously, or feel like no one cares. Perfectionists may hold themselves to impossibly high standards and may see reaching out for help as failure to succeed on their own. Sometimes teens don’t realize how stressed out they have become until it reaches a critical level. Adults may not realize that teens can have great relationships with their families and strong support systems, while simultaneously planning their suicide.
That’s where Crisis Text Line enters the picture.
Texting is the average teen’s primary method to communicate with family and friends. Nancy Lublin, founder of CTL and then CEO of DoSomething.org, worked with many teens at DoSomething.org and discovered that they were shockingly honest while texting. This observation led to the idea of a crisis text line and eventually the birth of CTL. (Read more about CTL’s beginnings here.)
“Life doesn’t seem to have meaning anymore.”
“All of the sadness is too much to bear.”
“I’m exhausted. I have to be perfect all the time, and it’s killing me. I can’t go on like this.”
“I’m being bullied at school and now they’re bullying me online. I just want to end it all.”
“I just want to do something worthwhile and good with my life, but I feel like all I do is let everyone down.”
These are words I read on a regular basis. Volunteers like myself offer empathy, active listening and strengths-based supports to help teens (and now adults, too, as of a few months ago) work through these intense emotional moments and stay safe, find coping techniques or simply breathe through a panic attack.
As a parent, it’s frightening. I feel like I know my teenage daughter well, and that we have great communication. At the same time, I know this could be her at any given moment, and I am so thankful that she has a support like CTL available to her.
What can you do?
- Make sure your teen knows about CTL.
2. Notice changes in your teen’s behavior. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or simply remind them that you are available to listen if they need to talk. Remember to actually listen and let them explore their feelings without judging them or trying to fix the problem. Teens often just need to think out loud and feel empowered by coming to their own solution.
3. Become a volunteer or donate. Volunteering requires just four hours of your time per week. My brief shift is one of the most meaningful parts of my week. You can help save lives too – just apply HERE.
4. Get your teen involved in something meaningful. Helping others and spreading kindness is a purposeful way to feel worthwhile. Do it together as a family or help facilitate a group of teens. DoSomething.org has many simple yet important campaigns that are easy to join.
This is a difficult subject but an extremely important one. Keep the lines of communication open with your child and seek professional help when needed.