Southern Colorado has been rocked by teen suicides recently, and it’s been devastating.
Our sons go to school in a district that has faced three student suicides in the past two weeks. During the last 13 months, there have been nine deaths in the district, between two schools located only a mile apart. And in nearby Pueblo, there were five student suicides last month. These recent deaths follow 29 student suicides that occurred in El Paso County (Focus’ home) between 2013 and 2015.
Colorado isn’t alone.
The CDC website shares risk factors for suicide, which include a history of depression or mental illness; history of alcohol or drug abuse; easy access to lethal means; and stressful life event or loss. The American Association of Suicidology shares the warning signs of suicide, including anxiety, hopelessness, withdrawal, anger, recklessness, and mood changes.
But these suicide clusters are leading researchers to believe that there’s another factor to consider, especially among teens: a fellow youth’s suicide.
Researchers are learning that suicide can be contagious, especially among young people, who are two to four times more prone to that suicide contagion than people of other ages. Experts also suspect that social media is contributing to the spread of suicide. Not only does social media increase the size of an individual’s social network, but the online tributes to suicide victims might unintentionally romanticize death.
Here at Focus, our hearts are breaking for families and friends of the teens lost. We weep for them because they are part of us. In some of the instances here in town, the children of our staffers were friends with the kids who took their lives.
This is why I’m sharing information on this difficult topic. We’ve seen this pain, and we want to help parents protect their children from this growing problem.
To that end, here are five preventive measures our counselors recommend parents do to help protect their children from suicide:
1. Be the “cool house.” You want your home to be the place where your teen and his friends hang out. That might mean you’re the family hosting the pizza and movie night, and all the messes that go along with it – but it also means you’re keeping a pulse on your teen and his friends.
2. Keep tabs on your teen’s electronics, social media and text messaging. Actively and regularly (on a weekly basis, minimum) monitor their screen time so you can catch potentially troubling things like pornography use and bullying. Deal with issues quickly. Teach them online safety so they don’t engage in dangerous behaviors like sexting.
3. Communicate with your child. Develop a rapport so you can talk with them regularly. Make sure you’re listening to your child, and avoid lecturing. Let them know you love them as they are – that they’re good enough, even as they continue to overcome challenges and grow.
4. Tend to your child’s mental health. If your teen is struggling with depression, anxiety, perfectionistic tendencies, or is dealing with mental illness, be diligent in dealing with the issues and in making sure your child is seeing a counselor.
5. Deal with learning disabilities. Denying reality won’t help your child – rather, admit your son or daughter has an issue, get them assessed, and find them help.
Sadly though, there are times when, despite all the precautions parents take, a teen might be showing warning signs of suicide. Our Q&A page on teen suicide, which I encourage you read, lists some of these warning signs. They include a young person enduring a sudden, major loss or humiliation. Or a teen who is giving away personal possessions. Or, as we’ve seen here in Colorado Springs, the suicide of other adolescents in the community.
This page also provides information that will help parents evaluate the level of risk and the imminence of the danger of a teen showing warning signs by remembering the acrostic S-L-A-P:
- S = Specific plan. Is your teen considering a specific course of action for taking his own life (either communicated to you directly or brought to light in some other fashion)? The more specifically someone talks about the suicide, the more details they give, the greater the risk.
- L = Lethality of the plan. Is this specific plan really deadly? If so, he’s now running a 50 percent risk. Continue to “A.”
- A = Availability of plan. Can the plan be enacted? Does he have access to the means and/or materials needed to carry out his intentions? If so, he is in considerable danger: remove the means and take immediate action.
- P = Proximity of help. Are there people close enough to keep him from following through with this specific, lethal, and available plan? He probably won’t try anything while friends, family, or others whom he respects are around. If you can’t put a teen under family supervision, call 911 or take him directly to a local emergency room.
If you’re worried about your son or daughter, please call Focus on the Family at 1-855-771-HELP, or visit www.FocusonTheFamily.com/Counseling, to request a time to speak with one of our licensed counselors. The ministry also has a practical list of resources that addresses both prevention and grief associated with suicide.
You may also want to visit www.FocusOnTheFamily.com/FindACounselor to find a vetted counselor in your area who is part of Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network.