I’m not a stranger to suicide. My mother’s first cousin took her own life, but the cause of her death was listed as an “accident.”
Three days before my wedding to my ex-husband, his aunt took her own life. Didn’t know whether or not to cancel the wedding. We went ahead.
My brother took his life on his thirtieth birthday. It’s one thing to consider the death of someone you love; it’s quite another to face the reality that he is gone. Even though it’s been years since his suicide, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t look at his photo on my desk and wish more than anything that he were still here. If only I had known what to do or where I could have gone for professional help.
Let’s face it: talking about suicide isn’t easy. I get that. But the sad reality is that teen suicide is a serious problem: dead serious. The number of teens who take their own lives has mushroomed. In 2015, a new study by the National Center for Health Statistics reported that the suicide rate among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 reached a 40-year high. Between 2007 and 2015, the suicide rate for those girls doubled. For young males, there was a 31 percent increase.
The statistics don’t lie, even if they are just numbers on a page without a story—without the beginning, middle, and end of a friend’s, a classmate’s, a child’s, a neighbor’s, even a sibling’s life.
We can never know for sure, but the best estimates show that more than 5,240 teens in grades seven through twelve attempt suicide every day. (One teen girl who’d attempted suicide a few years earlier said, “Suicide is the bravest thing someone can do!”) More than five thousand teens die every year—that’s more teens than die from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. And the news gets worse (as if it could) because the most recent survey reports that suicide attempts are four times greater for LGB (lesbian/gay/ bisexual) teens than their straight peers and that these attempts are four to six times more likely to result in medical treatment. Among the starkest findings is that 40% of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetime—nearly nine times the attempted suicide rate in the U.S.
Here’s the thing: You and your friends can probably recite the warning signs to look for when someone you know is in crisis, maybe even contemplating suicide. Don’t get me wrong: it’s important to recognize these red flags, like changes in a friend’s personality, eating and sleeping habits, attitude toward school, and on we go. But it’s even more important to know what to do to prevent these downward spirals from occurring in the first place. Kids usually talk to other kids long before they talk to adults. You and your peers know what’s up. So, why wait until someone you know is in crisis? Doesn’t it make more sense to get ahead of the curve and figure out how to operate from a position of strength? When things get tough for a friend (or you), networks of peers and trusted adults will be in place. You’ll have solutions up your sleeve and will be ready to hit the ground running. (More about this in Chapter 9.)
A Parable as Told to Me by Scott LoMurray, Sources of Strength
It Goes Like This:
There’s a man who lives along the bank of a river near a waterfall. One day while out walking, he sees a kid caught in the current, about to go over the waterfall. The man dives into the water, pulls the kid to safety, performs CPR, and saves her life. This scenario happens over and over again. Sadly, not everyone is saved. It’s a losing proposition. Then he has an idea and walks upstream, away from the waterfall and the heavy current. He figures it might be better to hang out where there is less danger. In a safe place, the kids can learn how to swim and how to avoid the potential disaster of falling over the waterfall in the first place. And if they do somehow get close to the edge, they will have the tools they need to find a way to avoid the fall and make it to shore.
You’re smart. You get the point. This suicide prevention thing starts upstream, where things are not in turmoil. You hang out with your friends. Right? Maybe you have a new song or cool app you’d like to share. Maybe you talk about some stupid thing you did and how it feels bad. If you are failing chemistry and may have to go to summer school; if you are smoking too much pot or drinking too much; if you’re having trouble getting out of bed in the morning and the rest of the day is a struggle, chances are either you’ll speak up or your friends will suspect something is going on. Good friends hang together and help each other out. You are each other’s first line of defense.
• • •
Why write a second edition of Dead Serious all these years later? The world teens inherited in 1987, the year when the first edition of Dead Serious was published, looked nothing like it does today. There was no Internet. No social media. No cell phones. No texting. For the most part, gays and lesbians were in the “closet”; certainly, there was little, if any, discussion about gender identity. Academic pressure was real but hadn’t reached today’s fever pitch. Music, art, and gym were an integral part of the school day and gave students a break from academics. When there was a need for information, kids went to the school or public library (imagine!) where they had to read books or squint to read newspapers and magazines on microfiche. Talking about sexual abuse, self-harming behavior, and suicide was taboo. And while bullying has always been a problem, kids went home after school where they were “safe,” free from the nonstop barrage of social media. In the late ’80s, the number of youth suicides had begun to drop and continued its downward trend until the late ’90s. Today, the biggest surge in suicide rates is among young kids between the ages of ten and fourteen.
• • •
Today, the biggest surge in suicide rates is among young kids between the ages of ten and fourteen.
• • •
No one knows for sure why more middle school kids are having a rougher time—why they are more anxious, more distressed, more drawn to suicide as a way to permanently solve their angst. Experts do have some possible explanations: academic pressure; the onset of puberty at a time when technology and social media have changed the way they (we) live; online bullying; the scary world around them with fears of terrorism, political upheaval, economic recession. Middle school kids are overexposed. They do not feel safe; they do not feel secure.
The second edition of Dead Serious reflects the changing social and cultural landscape, with a focus on stories and strategies to help you (and adults) prevent problems many young people face before things mushroom out of control.
Dead Serious is not a book about doom and gloom. It’s an intimate look at the lives of today’s teens, like you, the pressures you face, and the many possible combinations of reasons why a teen with her whole life ahead of her falls over the “waterfall.” Yes, some of the stories are sad. But there is always a suggestion or two about what could have been done upstream to prevent the tragedy long before a depressed, troubled teen teetered on the edge of the abyss. Dead Serious is a book about hope and empowerment. It provides tools and strategies to help break the cycle of teen suicide.
Three Big Takeaways
1. Talking about suicide does not make matters worse. What makes matters worse is not talking. That may sound counterintuitive. But more than anything, a person struggling with suicidal thoughts wants someone to listen, to show that they care and that they “get it.” They want help, and you can be the conduit between a friend and a trusted adult.
2. It is never your job to save someone but to connect with a trusted adult who can secure professional help.
3. It is your job to break the code of silence if a friend tells you not to tell anyone else.
So I’m passing the baton to you. You will run the final lap. Become part of a team of your peers and adults that makes the grade. Wins the race. Helps to break the cycle of teen and middle school suicides. And if you are ever depressed and think that life is not worth living, you’ll know where you can get help 24/7.
National Suicide Help Line: 1 800 273-TALK (8255)
With hope and gratitude
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