Recently I was talking with a mother of 3 children – two in college, one a senior in high school – and we were discussing the future of Please Live. She told me, “From a parent’s perspective, I think the thing that concerns us most is those kids with no warning signs. The children that seem to make an attempt out of nowhere. What can we do as parents when there are no signs?”
So I went home, and I started doing some research. I’ve found varying answers based on my search results, some suggesting that most suicides do not show warning signs at all, and some stating that anywhere between 75% to more than 90% of suicides show warning signs, but the signs were simply missed. But I did not find one article that I really felt answered the question, so I decided to dedicate today’s blog post to this very topic.
Let me begin by saying that human beings are extremely complex. We have a desire to try to simplify everything – we want one definitive answer to our questions, we want one definitive reason behind someone’s actions, but unfortunately that is rarely the case. We are made up of a lifetime of experiences, lessons, variables, nature vs nurture, ideas, and opinions so that not one person is like anyone else. And thus, when talking about the reasons behind suicide or suicide attempts, we can’t have one answer that covers every instance.
Too often we like to create categories. In this case, people like to create the two categories of “planned” and “unplanned” suicides. Planned suicides are ones that have most of the warning signs. Planned suicides are when individuals have a history of attempts, mental illness, or have made comments like “you’ll miss me when I’m gone” and “I won’t have to worry about this much longer.” Planned suicides say goodbye to their loved ones or give away valued items. Planned suicides write notes, or hint at their despair through social media and behavioral cues.
“Unplanned” suicides are generally done impulsively. Something major happens – a bad medical diagnoses, or trouble in a relationship, or getting in trouble with the law – and someone can become temporarily so overwhelmed with emotion that they make the decision to end their life.
I want to challenge you to destroy those two categories. Instead, let’s look at them as a sliding scale. One end of the scale is planned suicides, the other is unplanned. It is possible to be struggling with mental illness and not be considering suicide, and then one day impulsively make the decision to make an attempt. Such an example would neither be planned nor unplanned. It would be an individual that had warning signs, and yet made an impulsive decision. It is also possible that someone made a seemingly unplanned attempt, but the reality is that the warning signs were subtle or missed. I also personally think that once an individual completes a suicide attempt, it is impossible to tell whether the act was truly planned or unplanned, simply because we cannot ask the individual. We can never truly know what is going on inside someone’s head unless we ask them.
So, back to the main point of this blog post, and the main question posed to me: What about the kids that show no signs?
As infants, parents have to deal with the very real scare of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. The saddest thing for me to type is that sometimes suicide can be just as sudden as SIDS for a teen or young adult. Sometimes there simply aren’t any signs. I know of at least one teenager that died by suicide in our community that was so void of signs or symptoms that friends and family were pushing for a murder investigation because suicide was so out of the question.
As a parent dealing with an infant, you can follow all the advice that a doctor gives you to the letter and still suffer a loss from SIDS. And as a parent dealing with a teenager, the hard truth is that you can follow every suicide prevention tip in the book, and your child may still make an attempt on his or her life. This, by no means, makes you a bad parent. Please remember that mental illnesses are an illness. If your child is sick with cancer, parents generally do not blame themselves for the diagnoses. They know that they did not give their child cancer. But with mental illness, so often parents blame themselves for the illness. It is not your fault that your child is sick.
But there are some steps you can take to ensure your child is mentally healthy, and if not, to help support your child to get better. Here are a few to get you started:
1. Maintain Open Communication.
This is hard for teenagers. I vividly remember not wanting to speak to my parents about the stuff I was dealing with at school. I didn’t think they would understand, or I was afraid they would tell me that my problems weren’t “that bad”. Additionally, it was simply hard for me to express my feelings. I felt bad, but I couldn’t tell them why.
Eventually I did get the courage to talk to my mother about my feelings. How did I find that courage? Because when I was growing up, my mom continually told me “Alexa, you can tell me anything. You can talk to me at any time.” Even as a teenager when I didn’t feel like I could, I remembered her words in the back of my head, simply because I grew up hearing her tell me that I could talk to her.
Turns out, unbeknownst to me at the time, depression runs in our family. When I did open up to my mom, she was kind and understanding because she’s lived with depression before too. She immediately got me into counseling, and my life soon became better.
Your teens may not be very open with you now, and that’s okay. Just be sure to tell them – over and over and over again if you have to – that you love them, you care for them, and that you are there to talk if they ever need to. Make sure they know that you would drop everything to listen to how their day went. Just simply knowing that you are accessible is so important to a teenager who is hurting.
2. Keep them healthy inward & outward.
The role of diet and exercise on mental health is grossly understated. As a parent, you’ve been working from the very beginning at making sure your child grows up with the best foods, the right nutrients, the correct vaccinations, and a good balance between play and sleep. Keep it up! Teenagers have different dietary and sleeping needs than children, do your best to make sure your teen is getting the essential nutrients and enough sleep every day. Daily vitamins and a curfew help tremendously on this aspect. Make sure exercise is part of his/her routine, whether it is a sports team, gym routine, or a yoga class once a week.
3. Actively be part of their lives.
It’s one thing to be told that your parent is there for you, it’s another to actually see it. Make an effort to go to sports games, chaperone field trips, and immerse yourself into your teen’s culture. Do you know who your son/daughter’s favorite band is? Have you listened to their albums, and read the lyrics of his/her favorite song? Have you and your teen sat down to watch their favorite movie or TV show together?
Seeing a parent actively interested in their life is one of the best things you can do for your son/daughter. It strengthens the idea that “my parent cares about me, they care about things that upset me, but they also care about things that make me happy.”
4. Be friends with their friends.
Who are these people that your son/daughter is hanging out with? Get to know them, and get to know their parents. Your teen is heavily influenced by the people he/she chooses to hang out with. If you notice trends in his/her friends, you can expect the same trends to eventually end up in your home. Additionally, by developing a good relationship with his/her friends, you can glean insight into your teen’s life via them. Let the friends know that if they are ever worried about your teen, they can come to you and talk about it.
Teenagers are hard. They can be emotional, volatile, confusing, and contradictory. Teenagers are trying to juggle so many responsibilities at the same time, and they themselves often don’t know who they are or what they want. Adolescence is a great discovery, learning who you are, what you believe, and what you stand for. This is trying on everyone involved. Your job as a parent is to do the best that you can and work with what is given to you.
By following the above steps, your teen will be much more likely to come to you when there is a problem in any area of his/her life. And, if you see any signs of depression, anxiety, or suicide begin to creep up, you will already have a foundation of open communication and love in which to address your concerns.
As always, do not be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to your family doctor, or a local service agency, or call the 1-800-273-TALK hotline to voice your concerns with someone who can help. And as always, Please Live exists to be a resource to you. You may always email us with your questions and we will do our best to advise and refer.
And always, always, always remember: depression and anxiety are illnesses. Anyone, regardless of age, sex, orientation, ethnicity, home life, occupation, income, etc., can get sick. If your teen does get sick, makes an attempt on his/her life, or has completed an attempt – it is not your fault. All anyone can expect of you is to do your best, and take life one day at a time.