A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from a colleague who told me that there had been a suicide of a student who attended Saratoga High School. I was heartbroken. Not again. We have lost so many youths in recent years to suicide. As a therapist who works with teens, I’ve been grateful to have had the opportunity to help many kids to regain hope, to recognize their problems as temporary, and to heal. This poor child, though, was a reminder that all that I do is not always enough.
Depression is a subtle form of mental illness, which is often hard to recognize, especially in the midst of the “normal” moodiness that teens are notorious for. So parents and teachers don’t necessarily realize that something is wrong. Severely depressed teens are unlikely to ask for help. It’s part of the illness, actually, to believe that help is impossible.
Help, though, is very possible. Therapy can make an extraordinary, life-saving difference, not only in helping teens reduce their depression but in helping them to develop/learn strategies they can use in their moments of despair, which can save their lives.
Just this week, one of my clients, who had been making some progress, began having suicidal thoughts again. We developed a plan, which she agreed to. Thank goodness, in her middle-of-the night terrible low spot, she remembered the plan and was able to follow it. The first thing on her plan was to call her therapist. I was not available, but she knew what the next steps were. She called the suicide hotline. She felt they weren’t enough help, so she continued to follow her plan. She let her parents know what she was thinking, that she was having suicidal thoughts. She did this even though she didn’t like her parent’s help and kept trying to kick them out of her room. I had previously prepared her parents for this, and they stayed with her, keeping her safe until the episode passed.
When I awoke in the morning I had several missed calls and messages that my client wanted to hurt herself. My immediate reaction was to call 911, not knowing that her parents were there with her and keeping her safe. I was scared to death, but so proud that my client had reached out for help. I reached her parents around the same time as the police had knocked on her door. She was OK. She had “scratched her arm” but she was OK and alive. She had even verbalized to her parents that she wanted to use alcohol as a way to calm down, but she did not turn to this unhealthy coping mechanism. When I met with her later that day, she said “I can’t believe that everyone made such a fuss over me” with a smile on her face. One of the contributing thoughts to her suicidal ideation was feeling alone…seeing that people cared about her and tried to help her will make a big difference in her life going forward.
I recently read a statistic that 20% of teens have mental health problems. Many of these are going untreated. This led me to question, what are the barriers to getting therapy for teens who are depressed or anxious? The first and most important might be initial screening
Since teens often hide their feelings pretty well, parents and teachers need to be direct, even if they don’t think there’s a problem, and just say: “I’ve read that many teens sometimes feel so bad, they consider suicide. Have you ever felt that way?” If the answer is yes, talk to them and be ready to listen, don’t judge, don’t offer quick fixes. The next step, though, is to find some professional help by taking the child to their pediatrician, a school nurse or counselor, a pastor, or to a therapist trained to work with teens.
Sometimes teens won’t talk to their parents. They want so much for their parents to be proud of them, that they can’t admit they are having problems. They may not want anyone to know they need therapy or that they have depression or anxiety or are targets of bullying or abuse. If asking direct questions is unproductive or too hard, you could also just let your child know that it is OK to ask for help sometimes. Until they are ready, give them a place – a youth group, a pastor, their pediatrician, a counselor - where they can talk without fear of being judged.
My goal is to make it no more of a stigma to see a therapist or other mental health provider than it is to see a doctor. Our young people shouldn’t have to die. I believe therapy can help. Parents can get involved and, together, we can show our youth that whatever the problem is, suicide is not the answer.