Alex Slusher knew her son Stuart was struggling with something back in 2009, when he was a junior in high school but she never imagined those inner conflicts would lead to suicide. Stuart took his life on May 10, 2009, Mother’s Day.
“I knew he was having a tough time,” Slusher says. “He had never been diagnosed with depression. He had a lot of pressures academically. It was a combination of a lot of things that snowballed.”
Suicides among young people continue to be a serious problem in the United States, accounting for about 4,400 deaths annually among 10- to 24-year-olds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, and the sixth leading cause of death for 5- to 14-year-olds, according The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Many parents are afraid to broach the subject with their children, worried that it might plant a seed that would one day lead to a suicide attempt, but talking about problems your teen is facing and their consequences could save a life. Often, teens are looking for support from their parents, even if they seem reluctant to share their feelings.
“It’s better to talk about suicide than not,” says Slusher. “Kids can get depressed as early as elementary school. You need to screen and look for it early.” Suicide doesn’t occur out of the blue.
“The signs may not be picked up,” says Dr. Bela Sood, medical director of VCU Medical Center’s Virginia Treatment Center for Children and chair of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry. “A teen may be hiding it. They may be quiet and withdrawn.”
During the teen years, environmental influences have a strong impact on the way the brain is developing. “This is a time of great opportunity as well as a time of great vulnerability,” Sood says.
Teenagers may experience intense feelings of stress, confusion, self-doubt, pressure to succeed and other fears while growing up. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Facts for Families: Teen Suicide explains that for some teenagers, divorce, the formation of a new family with stepparents and stepsiblings, or moving to a new community can be very unsettling and can reinforce self-doubts.
Teens have a lot on their proverbial plates, everything from balancing overloaded academic and activity schedules to dealing with peers and social relationships. They are learning who they are and what they want in life, trying to decide where – or if – they will go to college, and how to cope with growing responsibilities.
They are forming relationships and trying to figure out how they fit in,” Sood Says. “They may also deal with the breakup of a relationship. They don’t have the maturity to take it in stride. They may feel like the world is exploding and that nothing will ever [be good] again.”
Teens are sometimes bullied and may feel a lack of support from parents and peers. Confusion about sexual orientation during the teen years may create additional stress. A family history of suicide can also put a young person at a higher risk.
Other factors that increase the chances of a teen experiencing suicidal thoughts include a background of substance abuse and aggressiveness. “That’s the perfect storm,” Sood says. If someone is abusing drugs, he or she may be more apt to take the risk and end up overdosing.
The availability of firearms is yet another problem. “With a gun, the margin of error is very little,” Sood says.
Many people feel that suicide is always premeditated but “suicide is sometimes impulsive, and impulsive suicide is the most dangerous because it is not contemplated and there is very little you can do to stop it,” Sood says.
There are several red flags that indicate a danger. Looking back, Slusher says the loss of two important mentors for Stuart the year before his death was a red flag. “Stuart was there for everyone else, he never asked for [help] himself,” she says
Her son, she says, was quiet and empathetic. He was a good athlete. He played baseball, wrestled and was an Eagle Scout. She remembers thinking it odd that Stuart didn’t go out for the baseball team his junior year. “He was a gifted baseball player,” she says. “It was the first year he didn’t play baseball.”
Sometimes teens can hide a depressive state of mind. A mood condition such as depression or bipolar disorder is one of the leading causes of suicide. “With bipolar, you have rapidly changing mood swings,” explains Sood. “Two other major triggers are feeling hopeless and helpless.”
SIxty percent of children with major depressive disorders have suicidal thoughts, according to Sood. Forty percent of those children end up attempting suicide. “Usually boys are more successful, but girls attempt suicide more,” she says.
Sood feels that talking about suicide helps reduce “the stigma around this issue.”
If you, as a parent, feel that your child may be struggling with stresses that may be difficult to handle, or if you see signs that make you feel uncomfortable, it would be a good time to sit down with your teen and have a heartfelt conversation.
If they are dealing with a broken relationship, for example, parents might use a conversation starter like, It must really feel bad. When people are going through difficult times, life feels like it’s not worth living. Have you ever thought about that?
During these types of conversations, you want to alternate your questioning with supportive statements such as, Nothing is so terrible or hopeless that you need to take your life. “Often your children won’t tell you how distressed they are because they don’t want you to suffer,” Sood says.
If you sense they are really struggling, it would be wise to ask them if they would like to see a professional. Parents rarely have the expertise to guide a teen through these troubled waters.
When it comes to teen suicide, mental health professionals are also concerned with suicide clusters where a peer’s suicide receives glamorized media attention that, in turn, could spur a teen that is vulnerable to commit the same act. “That doesn’t occur unless there is fertile ground,” Sood says. “Usually there is something else going on.”
Slusher says she had a “gut feeling” that something was wrong with Stuart during the last six months of his life.
“I knew he was off balance somehow,” she says. The day he committed suicide was a Sunday. He seemed agitated. He drove to church and nearly rear-ended a car. That was not usual for him because he is a good driver. When he came to the sanctuary, he was not himself. I thought he was pouting. He was staring off into [space].”
Like others in a similar situation, Slusher feels parental guilt around her son’s suicide. “What could we have done differently? That’s something you deal with the rest of your life,” she says.