Sadly, life can pile atop the shoulders of the young as readily as it burdens the old, and there are far too many kids out there who struggle with thoughts of ending their life before it’s even really began. In rare instances, suicidal thoughts and gestures can be seen in kids as young as 4 or 5 years old. More commonly, suicidal thoughts tend to emerge just before puberty in troubled kids, and once adolescence arrives, thoughts of suicide become relatively commonplace, even among otherwise “normal” kids.
Suicidal thoughts in children and adolescents often go by unnoticed, ignored until it’s too late. Since suicidal ruminations commonly reach their peak at a time when struggling with life is considered routine, perhaps even to be expected, severe emotional problems may be written off as normal teenage turmoil or dismissed as a passing phase. Making matters worse, young people are often the least likely to reach out and try to talk with someone about their struggles. As suicide researchers Andrew Slaby & Lily Garfinkel write, “parents are surprised to find that a daughter who committed suicide at seventeen first felt suicidal at age ten or eleven. Their obvious question, then, is ‘Why didn’t we see it then?’ The answer is that the teen didn’t have the words, or, perhaps, she camouflaged her pain so adeptly that it went undetected.” (1994, p. 158)
Are suicidal thoughts or attempts a cry for help?
In certain cases someone might develop suicidal ideation as a cry for help or attempt suicide as a means of getting attention. But it’s quite dangerous to assume this is always the case. Even if the whole ‘cry for help’ thing is true, many kids are successful at suicide in the midst of this cry for help. They end up just as dead as those who were more determined about their actions. Secondly, assuming suicidal ideation is a cry for help can be directly opposite to the truth. As David Burns states, “Many suicidal patients want help least of all because they are 100 percent convinced they are hopeless and beyond help.” (Burns, 1980, p. 340)
This chapter explores everything readers should know about child and teen suicides. We’ll discuss how often they happen, why they occur, and what parents, teachers, and other concerned adults need to know in order to help a child who is on the edge.
Why suicidal kids don’t always get the help they need
Unfortunately, far too many children are slipping through the cracks, their cries for help going unfulfilled until it’s too late. Slaby & Garfinkel (1994) outline 7 primary problems that can often prevent a suicidal youth from getting the help they need:
- Adults often take the attitude that a teen is being “manipulative” or merely seeking attention. They may even make insensitive remarks such as “who do you think you’re fooling?”
- Throughout the community, there is a shortage of people who are knowledgeable about the mental health needs of adolescents.
- There remains a stigma associated with mental illness that can keep teens from acknowledging problems or seeking help.
- Even when help is available and offered, there is a reluctance of teens to comply with therapeutic directions for seeking help, or teens are unwilling to discuss their emotions with others. Boys, especially, are uncomfortable talking about their feelings.
- Once a teen is flagged, there is often a lack of follow through. Counseling sessions may be stopped after just a couple of meetings. Many teens will feign recovery or rationalize a reason to reject or stop counseling before it can be truly effective. Parents also sometimes act as an impediment to recovery. Many parents feel ashamed and stigmatized to have a child who is suicidal, and so counseling can be uncomfortable. They may be just as eager to see it stop as the teen.
- Adding to the problem are systematic gaps in the availability of services. Some schools can offer on-site counseling, whereas other districts can’t afford it. Some areas of the country even face a shortage of qualified mental health staff. Then there are health insurance issues, which can interfere with a child getting the help they need.
- Finally, they cite a lack of practical, realistic information about adolescent depression and mental health that is available to teachers, coaches, and others who work with kids directly.