The silence in the hospital room was deafening. There was an occasional beep coming from the machine monitoring her vital signs. She was only 17, in her final year of high school. She was lying in the hospital bed, facing away from everyone and silently staring at the wall. Every once in a while, tears would roll down her face. Her mother stood at the foot of the bed crying quietly. Her father sat on the edge of the chair opposite the hospital bed, a close relative by his side. No one spoke.
There was such a mix of emotions in the room- fear, shock, anger, guilt, shame, sadness. Never had they imagined being in a hospital room under these circumstances. Her mother had found her unconscious following a suicide attempt. She had taken a large amount of pills, but was found early enough to save her life. For her, however, surviving the attempt felt like yet another failure.
Her father was angry. What would he do if people found out? How could she bring such shame on her family? What would he have done if he lost his daughter? Her mother felt painfully guilty. How could she have missed the sadness her daughter had been feeling for so many months? Then again, discussions about feelings and emotions are not common topics within Indian families. There is a general discomfort with these types of conversations. Parents tend to maintain an emotional distance from their children, perhaps because it is how they themselves were raised—or perhaps because there is a belief that this projects an aura of strength.
Though I encountered this situation in my role as a crisis counselor, many of us have been impacted by teen suicide in some way either within our own families or within our circle of friends. The event itself is nothing short of tragic, and the impact on family and friends can be devastating. Parents of children who have committed suicide report lifelong struggles with guilt and depression following these events. The impact on siblings and friends can be equally devastating. Teens who have been impacted by suicides can be at greater risk for suicide themselves.
Not too long ago, India had one of the highest suicide rates globally. Suicide among teens and young adults is an area of particular concern as it is occurring at alarmingly high rates worldwide. According to the most current data from the World Health Organization (WHO-2012), suicide is the second leading cause of death among those age 15 to 29. While the number of completed suicides is staggering, the number of suicide attempts is substantially greater. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates the rate of suicide attempts among youth to be up to 25 times greater than that of completed suicides.
The teenage years can be a time of great stress for many. Trying to fit in socially and succeed academically while trying to become independent young adults can be a struggle. Teens can easily feel overwhelmed by the many pressures they encounter. Though the causes of suicide among teens can be complex and multi-dimensional, a number of risk factors have been identified. Increased struggles with weight and body image, peer pressure, conflict within the home, alienation from family, and other such issues within the social environment can be overwhelming. A lack of social support and feelings of hopelessness and isolation can lead to an intensified sense that suicide is the only option.
Thus, strong connections to family become very important during these years and can be a significant protective factor against suicide. Efforts to develop and maintain these relationships is critical. Teens who have attempted suicide often describe feeling isolated and report perceiving their parents as unapproachable. They tend to reach out to their peers fearing harsh judgment from their parents. Having open lines of communication is fundamental. It is important to have conversations with teens about their interests and concerns. Providing praise, support, and encouragement is crucial as issues related to self-esteem are commonplace. Spending time together and taking part in shared activities is vital.
It is also important to watch for warning signs such as changes in their behavior. Becoming erratic or increasingly irritable may occur. Sadness and anxiety may be present. Changes in sleep and appetite, isolating, and losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed can be warning signs. Changes in school performance can be equally significant. Though the statistics can be disheartening, it is important to remember that suicide is preventable. For parents, developing an increased level of comfort with conversing and creating strong connections with their teens is an important first step.
– Suja Mathew is a licensed professional counsellor who has been working in the behavioral health field for 20 years. She currently lives in the United States.
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