Teen Suicide: How You Can Help Prevent It
Few things are sadder than young people choosing to take their own lives. Teenagers opting for this drastic and irreversible act at an age when they are just beginning life is one of the more tragic consequences associated with a culture devoid of Christ. My co-author, Oliver North, and I warn of this phenomenon in our new book, Tragic Consequences: The Price America is Paying for Rejecting God and How We can Reclaim our Culture for Christ (available at faithfultext.com and all other major book sellers). In addition to warning about the growing trend in teen suicides, we explain what individual Christians can do to help prevent it.
FACTORS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO TEEN SUICIDE
Depression is the most common cause of teen suicide followed closely by mental illness. The two often overlap. However, there are several other factors related to teen suicide Christians should be aware of because these factors can lead to or magnify depression. Treating depression is not your job; it’s not within the scope of what you can do to help prevent teen suicides. Depression should be treated by mental-health professionals.
However, you might be able to help teenagers cope with some of the factors that can lead to depression if not confronted. Further, knowing the kinds of factors that can contribute to depression will help you know when it is wise to refer a teenager to mental-health professionals. Getting depressed teenagers into treatment before it is too late is one of the most important things you can do to help them. Recommending this kind of referral to a parent or guardian might just save the life of a troubled teenager.
RISK FACTORS AND WARNING SIGNS ASSOCIATED WITH TEEN SUICIDE
As was mentioned earlier but should be reiterated often, individual Christians do not treat clinical depression in teenagers. That is the job of mental-health professionals. However, there are two important things you can do to help young people who are struggling with life.
The first thing Christians can do is help young people cope with the predictable stressors teenagers often face, stressors that if left unattended can lead to depression. You can provide the support, reassurance, and guidance that may be missing in the lives of teenagers who are struggling with life in a fallen world. More importantly, you can point teens to Christ as the true and lasting source of support for not just coping but overcoming the problems troubling them.
The second thing you can do is watch for the warning signs and risk factors associated with teen suicide. When one or more of the risk factors are observed, the individual in question should be watched closely and you should be prepared to bring in mental-health professionals quickly. The risk factors Christians who want to help reduce teen suicides should be aware of include the following:
Family history of suicide
Physical abuse (victim of)
Sexual abuse (victim of)
Losses (deaths of family members or friends, broken relationships, estrangement after relocating)
Eating disorders (eating too much or too little)
Poor coping skills
Unsupervised access to guns, knives, or other weapons that might be used to commit suicide
Confusion over sexual orientation
Feelings of being unloved or unwanted
Feelings of being misunderstood
Divorce of parents
Social rejection and loneliness
Run-ins with law enforcement authorities
Traumatic events (including events teens witness)
This list of risk factors has been validated by experience and substantial research, but it is not comprehensive. There can be other factors not listed here that put young people at risk of committing suicide. Further, to be clear, struggling with these factors doesn’t necessarily mean a teenager is going to commit suicide. Rather, it means young people who are struggling with one or more of these risk factors bear watching; they are candidates for close observation by people who care about them. Those who do the observing should be prepared to put the individuals in question under the care of mental health professionals on short notice.
In addition to the risk factors just listed, there are warning signs associated with teen suicide. Warning signs are a level above risk factors when it comes to how concerned you should be about the individual in question. Think of a youngster who can’t swim. Seeing him about to jump into the deep end of the pool would tell you he is at risk of drowning. Risk factors tell you to watch closely in case intervention is required. If the youngster jumped into the pool and failed to surface, that would be a warning sign.
Warning signs relating to suicide call for immediate action. Christians who want to play a positive role in reducing teen suicides should be familiar with the following warning signs. Their presence can indicate the need for immediate action:
Preoccupation with death in conversation, written assignments, artwork, and other forms of self-expression
Intense, unrelenting sadness
Feelings of hopelessness
Lack of interest in activities, hobbies, or tasks that used to be important
Withdrawal from family, friends, sports, social activities, school, or clubs
Substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, or both)
Unnatural sleep patterns (sleeping very little or sleeping all the time)
Giving away possessions, especially valued possessions
Lack of energy (especially in a usually energetic teen)
Risky behaviors that suggest the teen doesn’t care if he or she is injured or killed
Inability to focus, think clearly, or concentrate
Sudden absenteeism from school
Sudden drop in performance in school
Change in appetite (noticeable loss or increase)
Increased irritability and bouts of anger
The more of these warning signs a teenager exhibits, the more likely it is he or she will attempt suicide. What, then, is an appropriate response when you observe these types of warning signs in a teenager? First, don’t ignore the signs and don’t talk around the issue. Further, do not accept the misguided belief of some that anyone who talks about suicide will not go through with it. The rationale of these misguided individuals is that if teens want to kill themselves, they won’t talk about it, they will do it. This belief is wrong. Young people often talk extensively about suicide before going through with it.
The best approach is to be forthright. Tell the teenager in question you have observed the signs and are worried he or she might be contemplating suicide. Be open with the young person, but non-judgmental. Make it clear you would like to help. No matter how teenagers react to your expression of concern, getting them professional help is always a good response when you observe one or more of the warning signs. This being the case, it is important for you to be familiar with sources of help available to struggling teenagers.
SOURCES OF HELP
One of the best ways to help prevent teen suicide is to be familiar with the sources of assistance available. Teenagers who are contemplating suicide and people who want to help can both benefit from the sources profiled herein. Two organizations that can help are:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Stop a Suicide Today (stopasuicidetoday.org)
GOD IS THE ULTIMATE SOLUTION
To play a positive role in preventing teen suicides, begin by studying what the Bible has to say about this topic. Helpful verses for providing wise counsel to young people who exhibit the risk factors or warning signs of suicide include the following:
Psalm 34:17-18: “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” This verse may be helpful when you are trying to convince an individual you are concerned or when you are recommending that individual’s parents make a referral. The Lord is always present and available to walk them through their struggles.
Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” This verse may be useful when you are helping a struggling teen deal with the factors that can lead to depression. It may help a teen who feels hopeless realize there is hope in the Lord.
Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” This verse may be helpful when you are trying to point struggling teenagers to Christ rather than their peers for the comfort and acceptance they need. It can help you make the point the Lord is steadfast and dependable. Unlike the acceptance and approval of peers, God’s love is unconditional.
1 Corinthians 6:20: “For you were bought with a price. So, glorify God in your body.” This verse may be useful when you are trying to help struggling teenagers understand they have value no matter what their peers, siblings, social media “friends,” or anyone else tell them. If God loves them, they must be important. If Christ was willing to die on the Cross for them, they certainly are important.
To speak the truth in love about suicide as part of the wise counsel you provide at-risk teens or their family members, you must first know the truth, and God’s Word is the truth. Knowing what the Bible says about this issue will equip you to point the way to Christ for young people who may be contemplating suicide. The verses recommended herein are just to get you started. The Bible has much more to say about the issue of suicide.
Once you have studied what Scripture teaches about suicide, pray that God will take hold of at-risk teens and fill the void in their hearts with the comfort, reassurance, acceptance, and resolve that only Christ can provide. Pray for at-risk teens as well as family members and friends who are concerned about the warning signs they observe. If you are not sure how to pray about this issue, recite the following prayer:
Lord, I am concerned about (James). He is clearly at risk of committing suicide. I acknowledge that only you can provide what is missing in this young person’s life. Will you wrap James in your strong and loving arms and relieve him of the discouragement and depression that have him contemplating a tragic, irreversible act. Lord, will you also touch his family members and friends and help them know how to play a positive role in bringing James back from the precipice. I ask for your intercession on behalf of James in this situation in the Holy name of Jesus. Amen.
In addition to showing concern for individuals in your circle of friends and loved ones, make sure your children and grandchildren receive from you and the Lord those things that are missing in the lives of young people who are at risk of committing suicide. Give your children and grandchildren the time, attention, understanding, caring, and love they need from parents and grandparents. Encourage them to talk to you and listen attentively when they do. Help them learn to lean on you and on Christ for coping with the inevitable insecurities, disappointments, and discouragement that are part of growing up in a fallen world. If we, as Christians, raise our children right, we can reduce teen suicide substantially in just one generation.
Having studied the Bible, prayed, and made sure your own children and grandchildren know that a heart filled with Christ is the best way to cope with the inevitable struggles of life in a fallen world, here are some other things you can do to reduce this tragic consequence of living one’s life without God:
Memorize the factors that put young people at risk of developing a level of depression that can lead to suicide. When you observe that any of these factors are present in the lives of teenagers, make an effort to help them cope in positive ways. Lead them to Christ and help them see how He is always there for them, even in their darkest moments. Your goal is to prevent the risk factors from pushing teenagers over the edge into depression.
Memorize the warning signs relating to teen suicide. Be observant of and sensitive to these signs in teenagers you know. If you recognize a warning sign in a teenager, act immediately to get him or her under the care of a mental-health professional. If the individual in question is not a family member, recommend his or her parents make an immediate referral.
Make sure you know how to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and refer young people to this resource if you observe even one of the warning signs of teen suicide. If the young person in question is not a family member, recommend his or her parents make the connection.
Discuss teen suicide with your pastor and recommend your church undertake the following activities: 1) Train for youth pastors on the factors that put young people at risk for suicide, how to recognize the warning signs, and how to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 2) Train parents and grandparents of teens about the risk factors and warning signs relating to teen suicide as well as how to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (preferably this training would be open to the community as well as church’s members), and 3) Train young people in the church and community based on the materials and resources available from Stop a Suicide.
There is less chance of teen suicides in a Christ-centered culture. Be prepared to speak this truth in love to family members and friends of teenagers who are struggling. When you talk with unbelievers who are concerned about teen suicide, help them see how Christ can fill the void in the hearts of young people who have been driven into depression by various risk factors. Help unbelievers see that rejecting God but accepting sin leads to tragedies such as teen suicide and that this kind of tragedy is another example of what happens in a culture devoid of Christ. Let them know that a step toward Christ is the first step away from teen suicide.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press and Christians on the Job: Winning at Work Without Compromising Your Faith, Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2019: www.david-goetsch.com