Dr. Wes: While suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens (ranking behind accidents and murder), it remains thankfully rare. About 1,500 teens are known to commit suicide in a given year in the United States. Each incident asks us to reexamine our communities and ourselves to consider why it happens at all.
Though we’ve shared them before, I worry that lists of warning signs actually limit our ability to help those in distress. Lists ironically yield both false-positives and false security at the same time, offering no substitute for the real and crucial connections we need to make with one another. Lists are easy. Understanding is not. Lists also make the families and friends of suicide victims feel guilty, believing they “should have seen the signs,” when that’s rarely true.
I have a better idea. One we can each practice every day without a list. Let’s consider anyone as having a potential for self-harm, given the right set of circumstances and stressors, with teens being especially vulnerable to loneliness, alienation, and self-destructive thinking. Only then can we see that the best response is to value each other every day; reach out kindly; consider how we impact the lives around us; take seriously our individual power to harm and help.
In his young adult novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher addresses this issue quite poignantly. It reminds us that we are all interconnected and, to an extent, responsible for each other in our words and actions. Yet increasingly, teenagers follow adults in our society, showing a callous disregard for personal dignity and human suffering in favor of a perverted version of free speech that often comes anonymously and without personal responsibility. Texting, email, and Facebook make harsh interactions impersonal, as if writing it down and sending it makes it okay.
Only a tiny fraction of teens will respond to difficulties by taking their own lives, but many will consider it. Each of us has a responsibility to help each other find a better way, lead one another toward a sense of self-worth, and emphasize the worth of others. No one is responsible for suicide except the person committing it, and I’m not suggesting otherwise. But the choices we make in our daily interactions belong to each of us. Make them humanely.
Samantha Schwartz: In high school, almost everyone knows someone who has thought about committing suicide. Some have issues at home or within themselves that none of us can control. For others, the problem lies with interpersonal relationships. We’ve all heard about cases of teens killing themselves because they’ve been bullied by classmates.
I would venture to say that 90% of people are not mean-spirited or intentionally hurtful. So how do the cruel 10% get away with what they do? It’s the followers. They stand by and allow it to happen without blinking an eye. I hate to be a cynic, but I’ve come to believe that followers make up most of the population, and yet it’s hard to blame them. Taking a stand is scary; no one wants to risk being the next target.
I’m no Gandhi. I’ve slipped into bashing someone so excruciatingly annoying that I convinced myself he’s brought it upon himself. We need to realize that just like academic intelligence, there is social intelligence, and some people just aren’t very gifted. They have trouble picking up social cues, so they behave in ways we find odd or irritating. I’m still developing patience for these people. Sometimes what I say feels like word vomit—awful things flowing out of my mouth without my control. But I do have control. It’s a matter of training myself to think before I speak.
My mom once had a notepad with yoga’s Principles of Mindful Speech written on them. I think they’re dead on. We’re supposed to ask ourselves three questions before we say something: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? When tempted to pile on complaints about someone, thinking through these questions can help slow down the thought process and let the right words come to the surface.
It’s definitely a challenge, and I don’t always succeed. However, when I feel guilty for talking badly about someone, I try to reverse it by looking for something I like about her and complimenting her on it. I see it as tipping the scale of someone’s day slightly toward the positive. We all weigh our days subconsciously, counting up the good and bad things to give it a final rating.
Those days add up.
People who consider suicide feel their lives are tipped toward the negative. We each have the ability to add some weight on the positive side.
 That column is found in Chapter 5 of Dear Dr. Wes…Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens under the title “Suicidal Thoughts.”
Wes Crenshaw, PhD is board certified in family and couples psychology (ABPP), and author of the books Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens and Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens from which this posting is excerpted. Learn about his writing and practice at www.dr-wes.com. At the time she wrote this column, Samantha Schwartz was a Lawrence High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to email@example.com. The column is reprinted from Double Take, published weekly since 2004 in The Lawrence Journal World. Opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.
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