In 2012 our small community lost 4 teenagers to suicide, three within a two week span of time. Suicide is not contagious, but it can be a catalyst for suicidal behavior. The community circles of teenagers overlap through multiple associations in school, neighborhoods, places of worship, and team sports.
When there is a suicide in your community you must get informed, talk responsibly, and respond appropriately. You can not afford to assume "not my kid." Many of the parent survivors of suicide report that was how they felt too.
Improve Safety at Home: Properly store all firearms and prescription medications. Regardless of your position on firearms, it is important to think differently after an adolescent suicide. To further reduce risks, remove the ammunition and or guns from your home. Prescription medications can be locked in a container (available at local drug stores) or kept with you rather than stored in the original bottles in medicine cabinets.
Notice Changes: Suicidal thoughts are a symptom triggered by many different factors, so there is no simple explanation as to who is the most vulnerable. Research, however, has informed us to watch for certain risk factors:
- Deteriorating academic performance.
- A fixation with death or violence.
- Unhealthy peer relationships: Including indications that the teen is in a destructive or abusive relationship.
- Volatile mood swings or a sudden change in personality.
- Risk-taking behaviors (substance use/abuse, promiscuity, reckless driving)
- Signs of an eating disorder.
- Difficulty in adjusting to gender identity.
- Anxiety: Reporting “feeling trapped, overwhelmed.”
- Reporting “lack of purpose in life.”
Contagion risk: Individuals who witnessed a suicide or were first responders are at greater risk, and the vulnerability increases when we consider a young person who also was a close friend and identified with the deceased, "he was just like me."
Students who misinterpreted the signs of suicide or failed to report concerns to an adult will experience acute stress and need additional support, even though it will not necessarily increase their risk of suicide.
Listen: If a teen is talking about suicidal thoughts, threatening suicide, or expressing a wish to “go to sleep and not wake up” or similar statements, listen and take their words seriously. Even if the young person has a tendency toward the dramatic, these comments are an indication that there are struggles that feel overwhelming and additional support is needed.
Ask: Asking directly if a teen has had thoughts of suicide will assist you in determining the most appropriate action of support to ensure safety for a vulnerable teen through a difficult time. There is no evidence that asking directly about suicidal thoughts will increase the risk of suicide. Asking decreases risk.
Communicate: Every teenager would benefit from hearing that “there is no mistake that cannot be forgiven, no problem that you wouldn’t help them with, no concern in their life that you (their parent) could not handle.” Suicide is a symptom, not a solution.
Reach Out: Professional support is available in the community to assist you and your family through anxiety, high stress, achievement problems, substance abuse, and other difficult emotional and situational circumstances. Teach your teen that it is okay to get help, and that a friend’s suicidal thoughts cannot be kept a secret. Telling a trusted adult may help to save a life.
Crisis Numbers: Oklahoma HeartLine-405-848-CARE, National Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK