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Preventing teen suicide both in community and home Print E-mail
Guest column
Written by William T. McKenna   
Thursday, Jun. 01, 2017 -- 12:00 AM
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After the 13 Reasons Why debut that dramatizes the reasons behind one teen girl's suicide, there has been a significant amount of discussion regarding teenage suicide and preventing such actions.

Some authors have debated whether or not the Netflix series will harm or help adolescents when navigating both their own and their peers' feelings regarding this important topic.

Here, however, I wish to discuss ways that you can identify whether or not your teen (or an adolescent you know) is at risk for taking their life, and then what you can do to help.

• Talking about feeling trapped or feeling that there are no solutions.

While we all know that adolescents have a tendency to be overly dramatic in how they perceive relational tension or embarrassing events at school, you should be aware that if your teen begins to talk about feeling cornered by, or cut-off from, others, that could be at risk.

Be sure to ask open-ended questions (i.e. questions that cannot be answered just with "yes" or "no"), to actively listen to them, and not minimize their suffering.

• Talking about great shame or guilt.

All of us have made mistakes in our lives, especially in high school, but I dare say that most of us realized that most of our actions would not follow us the rest of our lives.

While helping your teen to gain perspective (and to understand that people's memories can be short), empathizing with your teen and seeking to understand their perspective first will help steer them more effectively through their current storm.

• Displaying extreme mood swings, suddenly changing from sorrowful to very calm or happy.

Mood swings and adolescence tend to go hand-in-hand. Hormones flood the teenage brain and body during puberty, and teens can struggle to make sense of what is happening to them.

Thus, when feeling trapped or feeling shame occurs, teens may have difficulty being prudent and temperate in their response, in part because of their hormonal changes.

The best course of action for adults in these situations is to remain calm and balanced since your affective response will either help or harm them.

I guarantee that if you lose your composure, your teen will continue to lose theirs. However, if you remain calm, you stand a better chance of helping your teen learn how to regulate their emotions, and you have to let them know that you can handle anything they throw at you (a vital component of being able to form a secure attachment with parents).

How you can help

Now that we have gone over some things you can do to help your teen when they are displaying some warning signs, let's review what you can do if your teen is actively considering suicide.

• Ask them.

Some parents may believe that asking your teen (or even talking about it) will make things worse.

However, talking about thoughts, feelings, and problems can only help your teen since it lets them know two things: First, that suicide is not a taboo topic and that you can (once again) handle whatever they may say; and second, that you take them seriously and want to help them.

• Keep them safe.

If your teen is actively considering suicide, then you need to remain calm but also take immediate action to protect them.

Doing things such as removing any and all objects which could become a weapon in the home is a good start. You also want to keep a close eye on them, so letting them go out with friends the night when they tell you the news probably is not a good idea.

• Be there.

I cannot say this enough: your teen needs your presence and your love more than anything else at that moment. Now is not the time to berate them or to talk about how suicide is wrong. Now is the time to tell them how much you love them and how they are irreplaceable.

• Help them connect.

If after talking with them they are (or you are) still concerned that your teen could commit suicide then you need to take them to the nearest emergency room.

While this can be a jarring experience for both of you, it is the safest and surest way to make certain that your teen is safe. Afterward, you should contact an outpatient therapist who can help both of you figure out how your teen reached the point of considering ending their life.

Conclusion

In all, adolescence can be one of the more complex life-cycle stages for someone.

Teenage years have many twists and turns. Sometimes your teen may feel so overwhelmed by life's stressors that they believe there is no way out except via suicide.

In those cases, stay close to your teen and let them express how they are feeling to you so you can help them organize their feelings and prove that you "got em" no matter what happens.

Information within this article came from the National Institute for Mental Health. Visit https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml#part_153176 for more information.


William T. McKenna, M.S. is a Pre-Doctoral Resident in Clinical Psychology at Catholic Charities with the Diocese of Arlington, Va. He recently completed his coursework for his doctorate at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, now Divine Mercy University. Divine Mercy University offers graduate programs in psychology and counseling, both online and onsite in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Visit divinemercy.edu for more information.