The topic for my letter this month is one that strikes terror into the hearts of the nation’s parents. The issue is suicide among teens and young adults. Self-destruction is at an epidemic proportion in this country. Colorado Springs, the home of Family Talk, leads the nation per capita in the incidence of this tragedy, and there is more alarming news. According to new data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the suicide rate in the U.S. hit a 40 year high among older teen girls in 2015.1 In the shorter term, the suicide rate for girls doubled between 2007 and 2015.2 The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new information in August indicating that there has been a 31 percent increase in suicide rates among young males, and the rate doubled for young females.3
It is my belief that the breakup of the family is one of the major experiences that plague the younger generation. It often leads to self-hatred and depression, which we’ll talk about more in a moment.
There are many factors at work here. We are going to explore the causes and prevention of suicide in this letter. At Family Talk, we recently devoted a radio program to this topic and I wish every parent would take the time to listen to this important broadcast.
My guest on that broadcast was Dr. Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors and a state licensed marriage, family and child counselor. I carry the same credentials in California and Colorado. I am also a state licensed psychologist in California. Together, we devoted our attention to the problem of teens and young people who give up on life.
What I want to share with our readers today is the text of a recent conversation on the topic of suicide between Dr. Clinton and myself. If we can prevent just one child or young adult from taking his or her own life, it will be worth what has been invested in this ministry from its beginning. I hope you will use this letter to help someone in critical trouble. Take this message seriously and pass it on. Of course, if you know someone exhibiting warning signs, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. And, if there is an emergency, please call 911.
This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Dr. Dobson: As you know, Dr. Clinton, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 5,500 American preteens, teens and young adults killed themselves in 2014.4 I’d like you to talk to our readers about some of the other situations that can lead a young person to give up on life.
Dr. Clinton: Let me summarize the scope of the problem, Dr. Dobson. Most authorities agree that suicide is now the second leading cause of death for individuals 10 to 24 years of age. Some studies show that suicide is the second leading cause of death for those in their early teens or twenties.5 During that window, more individuals die from suicide than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, influenza, and lung disease combined.6
Dr. Dobson: What a terrible loss! Outline some of the other common causes.
Dr. Clinton: Researchers indicate that one of the major risk factors is exactly what you just mentioned. It focuses on the breakup of the family, which is devastating to children. It strikes deep into the heart of a child when Mom and Dad divorce. We can never overestimate its impact. Many children are so terribly wounded by the disintegration of the family that they literally never get over it. They are in as much pain and sorrow five years later as when the divorce occurs. It robs children of everything secure and stable. The emotional structure of a child can be a foreboding place. Dr. Dobson, we know now that depression or mental disorders, along with substance abuse, as you mentioned, tend to be the big contributors to teen suicide. In fact, some say as many as 90 percent of those who actually commit suicide have some type of significant depression and/or substance abuse going on.7
I believe the key factors are relational in nature, including physical or emotional abuse, growing up in an atmosphere of anger and conflict, feeling trapped by unhappy circumstances, and being bullied and assaulted by peers. These are some of the primary risk factors. Those who try or succeed in killing themselves are often emotionally lost. They are reaching–ever reaching for hope, reaching for help, and reaching for acceptance. But they are often left to struggle on their own.
Dr. Dobson: As I said, Tim, suicide is often the ultimate expression of self-hatred.
Dr. Clinton: That is correct. You know what I've learned about suicide through the years? It’s not that young people hate life. Teens who commit suicide hate the way life has turned out for them. Teens and young adults often don't believe it's ever going to be any different. They’ve tried, but they’ve lost hope. For example, when you get angry, you can't think about anything other than what you’re upset about. When life begins to spin away from you, you can't see beyond your circumstances.
Dr. Dobson: You know, suicide is only one of many expressions of self-hatred. People wonder, for example, why kids cut themselves. Why would anybody pick up a knife and slash their legs or arms or leave themselves bloodied and disfigured? It doesn’t make any sense, unless you realize that person is saying, “I can't stand myself for another minute.” That's the way many young people feel. Then you add drug abuse to it, such as opiates or heroine, and you have the makings of yet another tragedy.
Dr. Clinton: People have often said to me, “Tim, why do kids go out and party like they do? Why are they experimenting with drugs and alcohol and other dangerous substances?” It’s often about peer pressure and trying to fill the emptiness in their souls. We are all made for relationship, but if the linkage is broken and dysfunctional, an individual often reaches for something with which to anesthetize himself or herself. So, kids experiment in different ways and for different reasons. The drive for acceptance is incredibly powerful. The chaos continues and spills into their friendships, where they have begun to feel alienated.
I saw an online post recently. It showed a photo of a young girl in our community who committed suicide. It was such a sad story. I can only imagine what was going on inside her heart and mind. You can be sure that her self-image was so shattered that she was convinced no one could ever love or respect her. She didn’t have a friend, and her peers taunted her unmercifully. No one cared for or understood her. Eventually, she gave up on life.
What that girl needed was someone a little older who would put her arm around her and give her some tender loving care. One of the myths people believe about troubled teens is that talking with them will increase the chances that they will kill themselves. It’s not true. Talking understandably with troubled kids is usually helpful. Caregivers need to hold conversations with those young men or women so they will believe that someone wants to hear them.
Dr. Dobson: Tim, I grew up in a very loving and functional family. I had an amazing father and a wonderful mother, and I had a very happy childhood. I sometimes feel like one of God's spoiled kids because I had it all.
Dr. Clinton: You were blessed.
Dr. Dobson: I really was. I found the Lord when I was four years of age and that gave great meaning to me, even as a child. I didn't run the gamut of dangerous behaviors like some of my friends did. But my time in the valley eventually came. When I hit junior high school, my world fell apart. I was younger than everybody I had been running around with. They went into puberty and I didn’t. They had girlfriends and boyfriends, and I was still a kid.
Dr. Clinton: I’m sure those were rough years.
Dr. Dobson: They were rocky. I remember going to a band concert in another town. We rode a bus, and I felt like I didn't have a friend in the world. I wonder how many of our readers felt like that when they were in eighth grade. I didn’t have anybody to talk to, so I finally forced my way into a conversation halfway forward in the bus where other kids were laughing and having a good time. Then one of the popular guys suddenly turned to me and said, “Why did you come up here? We were having a good time until you came. Why don’t you go on back to where you came from?”
It crushed me. I will never forget that moment. I had never experienced anything like that in my life. When we got back to our little town, I cried all the way home. When I got there, my dad was waiting for me. He saw my tears and said, “Tell me what's going on,” and I sat down and began telling him what happened on the bus. I told him I didn't think I was physically attractive, and I didn't have a girlfriend and I went through all that stuff that my mind was thinking. He talked me down from the ledge. I don't remember how he did it, but when he finished I knew I was worth something and I knew I was going to be okay. But what if he hadn't been there that night and didn’t recognize the hole I was in? What if I didn't have a father who was there to listen to me? Sadly, many people have no one to turn to in moments like that. Many kids do not have dads or mothers who care.
Dr. Clinton: Your father knew instinctively that you needed him. Unfortunately, many parents think that their teens don't want to be around them. It’s like hugging something prickly like a porcupine. But research shows the opposite. The number one thing that still makes children feel safe and happy is a strong relationship with Mom and/or Dad.
Let me compound that picture even more. There is an Internet “game” called the Blue Whale Challenge. Some kids are playing it and committing suicide as part of the game.8 Moms and dads need to be aware of this game and other risky television or Internet programs, such as the documentary Netflix series called “13 Reasons Why.” It was released this year and sparked a great deal of controversy among teenagers and adults alike. It was about a character named Hannah. She was a junior in high school who committed suicide after playing some of these dangerous games. Young people tend to normalize suicide when they are in emotional distress. These vulnerable kids have no hooks to latch onto.
Dr. Dobson: They are convinced there is no other way out.
Dr. Clinton: The church needs to be a place where teens can find somebody who cares. The scriptures tell us that, “Though my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will deliver me up” (Psalm 27:10). God calls on the church during times like this to reach into the hearts of these young kids. Youth pastors need to speak hope into their desperate and hopeless lives.
Dr. Dobson: Tim, it is no wonder why many teens and young adults feel absolutely worthless. Their science classes and teachers tell them that there is no God Who made them. The universe resulted from evolutionary forces which had no design and no designer. When we die, our bodies will go into the ground where they will rot. The kids have no purpose in living. Nothing is right or wrong. Life is utterly meaningless.
Here’s another thought that I tried to express in my book, Bringing Up Girls. It’s a critical message to parents, and it may be the most important thing I have written. If you, as a parent, are distracted, or if you are working long hours that leave you exhausted when you get home; if you are too involved in your own activities to recognize what's happening to your sons and daughters; if you ignore them and if they are not part of your world; if you don't take the time to love them and care for them; if you invest everything you have in a busy career or travel; if you don't notice the kids around your feet who are crying for you and reaching for you–if that is your approach to parenthood, I promise the culture will take them to hell! You will miss the most important thing in life, and you may never see your children in the afterlife. I beg you not to make that mistake. You MUST let your children know how important they are to you. It matters little what else you accomplish in life–if you don’t show love and care for your children, you will have failed. And, some of them will end their own lives before they have even begun.
Dr. Clinton: That is the stuff of life. Let me add this thought. If your son or daughter is making suicidal statements or talking about it, that’s a huge red flag. They may be preoccupied with death in conversation or in their writings and drawings. Pay attention, too, if they begin giving away their belongings or withdrawing from family activities. I am especially concerned about what is called the “loner factor.” Watch also for aggressive, hostile behaviors. Perhaps they are neglecting their personal appearance, or their grades aren’t what they’re supposed to be. Be on the lookout for a change in personality or evidence of high conflict going on, such as a recent breakup. When those factors start coming together, they are warning signs.
Dr. Dobson: Tim, there’s one more factor that people overlook. If you have a son or daughter who has shown those characteristics and has been depressed, and then, suddenly, their mood lightens, beware. If they have been in a hole in the mire and things begin to look better to them, that is a warning sign. The child may have made up his or her mind about what to do. They are not under pressure anymore; they’re no longer struggling with how to deal with their depression. They have figured it out and have decided to commit suicide. A teen or child often does that, and you don’t have a clue because you weren't aware that sometimes a lightened mood is itself a sign of trouble.
Dr. Clinton: That is a very important point. Another suggestion is to talk to your kids. Many parents think that they will increase the possibility of suicide if they talk about it at home.
Dr. Dobson: We know that’s really not true.
Dr. Clinton: It is not true; it's the opposite. Go right into it if you have an indication that they are contemplating suicide. If they have a plan, you know it has progressed way down the road. Don't leave them alone. Continue to talk with them and get them help. The hopelessness will overtake them. Get on the phone with 911, take them to an emergency room and to a professional counselor immediately. This is especially true if you're seeing high risk behavior taking place. This is real! The good news is if you do that, you might save a life.
Dr. Dobson: And, Tim, there are some kids who are drawn to certain adults. Some are drawn to a coach, others to an uncle, a neighbor or another member of the family. That person can have a great measure of influence by saying that he loves him and will listen to him and talk him through a low point like my dad did for me when I was in despair. It made all the difference in my life to have someone who believed in me and told me so.
We had a male Sunday school teacher during our junior high years. It was an all boy class, and every one of us loved him. He would tell us stories that brought us to tears. He made an incredible impact in our lives. A leader with those kinds of interpersonal skills can save a boy or girl in trouble.
Dr. Clinton: I love what you're saying there. Own your influence in their lives. Recognize that God has placed those young people there for a reason. Perhaps you will have the opportunity to speak hope, truth, and love into their lives.
Blessings, everyone. Be in prayer for your troubled sons and daughters. God loves them, and He will guide you as you minister to their hearts and minds. I hope this letter has been helpful. Let us know if we can be of greater assistance.
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