How to Save a Life
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens. Here's what you can do.
The suicide prevention landscape is littered with good intentions gone wrong. One of the most common mistakes, says Kim Durand, coordinator of the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth & Families, is avoiding talking to young people about it, for fear that bringing it up will put the notion in their heads.
“Asking them is not going to make them suicidal,” she says, “but knowing if they are could potentially save their lives.” Parents need to get in the habit of having real conversations with their kids, she stresses. “Did you do your homework?” or “What do you want for dinner?” don’t count.
“Listen without judgment,” Durand advises. “Make time for them, recognize their feelings. You’ll be able to recognize when it’s something more than teenage angst.”
Another fallacy is the notion that if people really want to kill themselves, there’s little that can be done to stop them. “The majority of people who are thinking of suicide are not wanting to die,” Mayer says. “They just don’t know how to live.”
Research backs this up. A long-term UC Berkeley study of survivors who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge found that 10 percent or less ended up dying later by suicide.
Of course, the means of a suicide attempt can make a big difference in whether a person gets that second chance. Many acts are impulsive, and guns are more likely to be lethal—which is partly what accounts for higher suicide rates among boys. Girls make more attempts than boys do, says the CDC’s Ivey-Stephenson, but they tend to use other methods.
Removing household risks is an important step toward prevention. “[It’s] not just locking [guns] in a safe and throwing the key in a drawer so every family member knows where it is,” says Vincent D’Avena, a suicide hotline volunteer for CrisisLink and president of Intellectual Homes, a homebuilding and remodeling company in McLean.
One Sunday per month, D’Avena closes himself up in his study and answers texts from teens and others who are struggling. Sometimes that means helping the person come up with a plan for getting dangerous items out of the house and finding help.
“You think Arlington and McLean kids don’t commit suicide but they do,” says D’Avena, a father of 12- and 14-year-old sons. “Speaking as a parent, don’t we all think our kids are not capable of that? Yet we all know someone who has.”
Too often, he says, parents are not taking their kids seriously when they talk about stress. Kids may be struggling with bullying, eating disorders, lack of self-worth, academic pressure and emotionally unavailable parents. Some who say they are depressed are told they just need more sleep.
“A lot of times, parents don’t believe their kids are suffering. [Kids] come to us because they don’t feel they are being heard,” D’Avena says.
The CrisisLink text line allows teens to connect in a medium they are comfortable using, he adds. And because texting is silent, kids can be forthcoming without fear that someone may be eavesdropping.
Last year, an Arlington middle school student texted CrisisLink during class. He said he was thinking about suicide but was reluctant to go to the school counselor. In an age of school shooters, he was worried he’d be seen as a dangerous person and expelled.
After texting back and forth with the boy for an hour, CrisisLink alerted the school’s counseling staff and passed along the information he wanted the counselors to know—at which point the counselors called the boy into the office to offer help. By the next day he was feeling better, his parents had been looped in and he was scheduled to get therapy. (Mayer says CrisisLink volunteers are careful in navigating the tricky waters of privacy for callers.)
Atkeson, the social worker, says one of the most important things parents can do is pretty simple: Ask their kids if they are thinking of suicide and open a conversation. “They should tell them, ‘I would never want you to do that.’ Kids need to hear that.”
Therapy also can be productive, by nature of its objectivity. “[Teens] need someone who will ask them these questions and allow them to answer honestly without a huge emotional response,” Atkeson says. (Whereas parents, understandably, tend to freak out.) Plus, therapists can give troubled kids hope and perspective by explaining that others struggle with the same issues.
“Most of these kids have solvable problems but they don’t know that yet. They don’t have the life experience,” says Mayer, who credits a therapist with helping her work through the pain of her own past. Counseling can help a young person see the difference between a bump in the road and a closed road—and shake a negative worldview born of early trauma.
“No one asks, ‘Is it worth it for you to stay alive?’ ”Mayer says. “That’s what ultimately is going to stop it—feeling connected to people. Feeling safe, feeling like there’s actual hope things can get better. It’s the connection you have with others, the connection to life that keeps you from wanting to die.”
Mayer advises parents to be upfront with schools when their kids are struggling. Some worry their child will be labeled a problem, when in fact the school community can be an integral part of the solution. Kids spend a large part of their day at school, and Arlington, Falls Church and Fairfax schools have many resources that can help reduce stress—from counseling to individualized education plans that offer accommodations for test anxiety.