This summer two people died by suicide on my street.
The neighbourhood grapevine whispered, used the word “commit,” as if suicide is a crime. Once, tragically, it was considered murder, but that’s been off the books for years. Still, the word and the idea persists.
One of these suicides was understandable, but no less shocking.
A sweet, kind 57-year-old man hanged himself in his garage. He was very ill and lonely. He ached for a constant companion, but he never found her. He had lost the quality of his life to a form of brain cancer that was cured by surgery, but the cure left him with constant pain and an agonizing cacaphony in his head that wouldn’t be silenced. He couldn’t stand it anymore. He found his peace.
The other was less easy to reconcile. A 17-year-old boy hanged himself in his basement. I heard this but little else through whispers in the neighbourhood. Apparently his father discovered his son’s body.
No one dares speak out loud about suicide. It’s a taboo. Still.
Yet, among youth of both sexes between the ages of 10 and 19, suicide is the second leading cause of death in Canada and the U.S. It is a major public health issue, yet there are huge gaps of knowledge and far too little research devoted to understanding suicide and trying to prevent it.
There are a great number of assumptions made about people who die by suicide. The most prevalent is that they are depressed or have some form of mental illness – mainly depression. Were this true, then the suicide rates should have plummeted with the proliferation of dozens of different antidepressants that have flooded the market over the last few decades.
There has been a slight decrease in suicide rates in youth between 15 and 19 years of age in recent years – from 13.8 per 100,000 to 12.9 per 100,000 – the use of antidepressants may account for a fraction of these.
Alcohol and substance abuse may have declined and there is a decreased availability of firearms.
As for the use of antidepressants, the relatively new SSRIs or Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors in some rare cases may worsen suicidal tendencies. It’s still very controversial. No one knows if these powerful drugs developed for adult brains are safe and effective for young, developing, teenage brains.
To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know if stamping a young person with the label of “Depression” – as in a mental illness – does much to brighten his or her mood. Especially if this young soul is showing signs of angst and unhappiness that may appear more profound that what’s considered typical of the teenage mind and brain.
Labels stick. Do you want to put your kid “into the mental health system?”
What’s typical, anyway? I don’t know if the experts know. Psychiatrists take one point of view. That you’re sick. Some psychologists do, too. A psychologist who saw my 13-year-old stepdaughter for a few sessions was convinced she was severely troubled and needed long term care. It’s to their advantage. They get paid $150 per hour.
There are other strategies. Other therapies that are proving promising. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for one.
When we took a different approach, and her father and I went to weekly groups sessions with other parents of difficult children with Parents for Youth we found that my stepdaughter responded beautifully to the changes in our behaviour and the strategies that we learned. From other parents.
Today, at 21, she's perfectly fine.
Peer support for parents and kids can be very powerful and very healing.
People, young and old, internalize the psychiatric labels tossed around so easily, these days. Even though “depression” and “anxiety” are so ubiquitous, they’re considered almost normal.
Furthermore, what might “depression,” feelings of despondency and dejection and hopelessness be caused by? A chemical imbalance in the brain? (No proof of that, yet.) Perhaps emotional, physical, sexual abuse at home. Perhaps bullying at school. Perhaps overwhelming academic demands. Perhaps an undetected learning disability. Perhaps parental neglect. Perhaps a sense of disconnect between a young person and parents who are obsessed with their work and their obsessions for acquiring “stuff.”
I think that feelings of hopelessness can come from many external sources (and have nothing to do with a “mental illness"). Maybe it’s the inability of parents and teachers to cope. Their lack of strategies that can be learned. Perhaps it’s the school system and kids who simply learn differently. Who have artistic talents that aren’t valued academically at school. Perhaps it’s peer pressure.
There can be any number of situations that can cause a young person to feel a sense of despondency.
If ignored, that despondency can spiral out of control.
Surely, when a family doctor prescribes a medication that has to be monitored regularly, perhaps just having to see a doctor on a weekly basis, someone who has the time to listen and show sincere interest, might help. Is it the regular human contact, the sympathetic ear? Or the chemicals that might prevent a suicide?
Listening. Actively. Just being there to listen, I think, is healthier than a psychiatric label and a prescription for a young person who seems to show warning signs of trouble beyond the typical teenage angst.
Recognize the warning signals.
When a kid comes home exhausted from school. Won’t go to sleep at a reasonable hour and then cannot sleep. Isn’t communicating. With parents. Siblings. Friends. When there seems to be a disconnect, don’t just chalk it up to adolescent angst. Look at the big picture and seek help.
There are many different strategies. Possibilities for Recovery that don't involve psychiatry. Do your homework. Seek ways to help your child without branding him or her with a “mental illness.” Look for holistic ways that will encompass the family, school and other influences in your child’s world.
Don’t go looking for a quick fix and a pill to make your child right. There are many different holistic approaches to help families in crisis. And, if a child is in crisis, perhaps it’s a family issue.
Just don’t wait. Don’t ignore the signals. It may not be a phase. Do something.