As many of you know, I write the Sanity Savers newsletters with a hope of being helpful. Some of the articles are more personal than others and I appreciate the feedback you offer. It means a lot. I had written and was ready to post a different article last month, and then Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. And now, the increasing number of teen suicides (one of which I just heard about this morning) weighed heavily on my heart and so I wrote this article. It seems as if the hard realities of life insist on taking the front seat.
Earlier this week, I received a note from a friend alerting me to yet another teen suicide in the community. She shared with me what the community was doing and how the schools were addressing this shocking (but all too common) news.
Counselors were being made available to listen to the children and talk with them. (I assume, individually and in groups). A local pastor with a reputation as someone who connects well with kids is part of the healing team to provide support as the teachers, students and families process the shock.
There are some who are calling the rise in teen suicides an epidemic in the midst of the pandemic. Suicides among our youth were already increasing before the pandemic and have continued to increase due to a multiplicity of factors that were both initiated and exacerbated by the pandemic. According to the CDC, in 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14. Suicide attempts among adolescents ages 12-17 (mostly girls) rose by more than 50% (from the previous year) during the pandemic.
As a society, we are getting a bit better at addressing the issues of mental health. Yet when a child attempts to take their life or dies by suicide people often respond with questions that come from a place of judgment and criticism.
As we attempt to listen and be alert to the issues of our young people, we must be willing to examine our own feelings, concerns and prejudices about suicide. For some it is the ultimate sin. And with that, it becomes the ultimate secret—something to hide.
I was deeply touched by Senator Jamie Raskin’s open conversation when his beloved son, Tommy, died by suicide. Senator Raskin shared the painful story of a young man who, from childhood, was extraordinarily sensitive to the pain and suffering of people and animals in the world. He always tried to find ways to get involved and help. Along with his sensitivity came depression that he had dealt with most of his life. During the pain and suffering of the pandemic, his father said, “the depression won.” By sharing his family’s painful story and experience, he educated many people and made it a little easier for other families to share their own stories.
When a family suffers, it is so important that extended family members, friends and the larger community show up in ways that are meaningful to the family. A community needs to open its arms to a family by being present to them and allowing them to talk openly about their experiences if they choose to. Often families are afraid to do this because they feel shunned or judged.
The rise in teen suicide is a devastating reality. Kids who are popular, kids who have friends, kids who have no friends, kids who feel different, kids who don’t know how to solve the problems in their families, kids who feel depressed, alienated, despondent, hopeless, and overwhelmed are sometimes told: “Buck up. What have you got to be sad about? Look at all that you have in your life.” These responses often come from a place of fear and lack of understanding. Our children need caring people to “be with them along their journey.” In order to be that caring person we need to examine our own feelings, our own hesitations, our own judgments.
When a child dies by suicide or there is a suicide attempt, the family is left with questions that may go unanswered for a lifetime. Needless to say, there can be a heavy dose of guilt and deep sorrow; for some there is embarrassment and shame.
Addressing the death of a child is always hard. People say it is their worst nightmare. The child’s parents often see the vulnerability of themselves, their children, and their family when they come face-to-face with a child’s death. When you add suicide to that mix, the feelings and reactions often become even more complex. As with any death in a family, other families are often uncomfortable and afraid to talk about the deceased.
Some grieving families want to talk. Others do not. But all of us need comfort. So, the question is, “What helps?” The question is not “What makes the pain go away?” The question is “Can you be with someone in the depths of their pain?” Quite often the most helpful response is to be present and just listen. It is important to keep our focus on them and not on our own stories or stories of other friends to whom this happened. It takes skill and self-awareness to be present with someone and listen deeply without giving advice or talking about ourselves. We can ask, “Is there a way I can be of help?” Asking other questions about what they think happened or whether there were any warning signs are not helpful.
Being present, keeping in touch rather than avoiding the family is often critical. Sometimes our own anxiety and feeling like we don’t know what to say leads us to avoid a family. It is important to realize that our compassionate, silent presence is a strong support, often the best support we can offer. Of course, there are times when a family wants to be left alone and that should certainly be respected. However, we want to be sure that it is not our own anxiety that is keeping us from reaching out.
At this particular moment in our country, communities can help in many ways. We need to avoid stigmatizing suicide. As a result of the pandemic and the extra stress experienced by so many children and their families, communities need to be alert and responsive to feelings of despair in children. We need to actively look for ways to embrace each child in our community for their uniqueness.
Communities can help by educating themselves and speaking openly about suicide, depression, and other issues plaguing our children. Each of us, as members of our local communities, can help by being kind and listening to all the children in our lives with full attention and compassionate hearts.
Here are some numbers for reference:
Of all the gifts we give to each other one of the most valuable is the gift of appreciation. Real, authentic, from the heart appreciation.
This is different from thanking someone for what they have given you. This is about appreciating how someone has affected you.
When was the last time you gave such a gift to someone about whom you thought something positive?
Offering our sincere appreciation in any form is valuable. It acknowledges the goodness in their lives and ours. Offering gratitude in a letter is literally, a gift to hold onto, for repeated readings.
Write and mail the person a letter (as opposed to an email or a text but if that’s “all ya got”, then send it that way).
Think about what that person has done or said (tangible or intangible) that made a difference in your life.
Describe as simply as possible, what it is you appreciate about them.
Explain why that quality or characteristic is important to you.
Share the situation where you experienced that quality in them and how it made you feel.
Describe what you are doing in your life now and how you often remember his or her efforts.
During our day, when we find ourselves feeling anxious or “off,” we can work to practice calming our mind through our senses.
We can emphasize the “out breath.” We can bring a candle, a flower, or relaxing music into our space. We can put our hand on our heart and/or belly as we sit in a chair or lie on the floor. And then we just breathe. We can focus on the sensation of the air coming in and flowing out through our nostrils.
As we reflect on what happens when we do these things, think about how we can continue to incorporate these simple strategies through into our days.