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Why We Need To Talk About Suicide In Young People

By Hannah Smith, Legends Report Writer

For most of us, suicide is a subject too close to home. Unfortunately, most of us can say that we either have been affected by it first-hand or know somebody who has. It is difficult to talk about, and with good reason. But as we continue to keep it locked up as a taboo subject, the issue continues to grow around us, and is most concerning with children. With this week being Suicide Prevention week it's especially in our awareness to talk about it...

NBC states how 46 hospitals across America recorded that the admission of suicidal children between the ages of 6-12 has doubled between 2016 and 2019, and shows no signs of slowing. Read more about it in this article here.

It is hard to talk about suicide at any age, but the idea of talking to a child or teenager about it is unbearable for most, as for a developing young mind these emotions are unfathomable, like feeling around a dark room for a light switch that you are unsure is even there. Even helplines provided by charities like Samaritans are limited in what they can do. They are allowed only to listen to their callers and are prohibited from giving any advice, and although having an anonymous pair of ears to listen can help, what young people need is somebody to respond, to talk back and help them through these feelings that overwhelm them. But if the only people they can find to speak to are friends and family members, people who don’t know how to talk about it, it can cause devastation for both parties.

It is important to spread the message that we need to talk about mental health, particularly to children and teenagers. However, it reaps little benefit if we don’t know how to talk about it in a way that will hopefully bring about positive results.

It helps to begin to question why young people may start to develop feelings that result in suicidal ideations, by exploring the possible factors that trigger suicidal feelings in young people we can possibly begin to understand how we can prevent them at the source before they develop.

"A human being can survive almost anything as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end."

 Elizabeth Wurtzel, writer and journalist.

It is easy to relate the recent rise in suicidal tendencies in young people to the Covid-19 pandemic, and this makes sense. Rather than waking up in the morning to the routine of getting ready and heading off to school, kids are floating above a computer screen for a couple of hours a day.

It is clear that this will have serious effects on their social skills, self-esteem and wellbeing in general. However, evidence points towards this rise of suicidal ideations beginning long before Covid-19. The pandemic is important to consider when exploring the mental health of children, but it is not the only factor and never was. This crisis began long before the pandemic.

The Education Crisis 

School was supposed to be a place where children could explore what they love, and learn how to interact with others, and it seems they have lost out with the lack of face-to-face education during lockdown. The system of education itself can bring about negative mental health for many young people. Coronavirus has affected the academic confidence of many young people and this is not limited only to school children. 

The OECD states how young university graduates are suffering from the pandemic is: ‘disproportionately affecting young people, reducing opportunities for part-time work and work-based learning for students, and leaving soon-to-be graduates and recent graduates facing an uphill task to find and keep a job, putting them at risk of experiencing mental health issues’.

As a young person who graduated last year at the height of the pandemic, the world of work has become a scarier place to be in than I expected.

Education during the pandemic has proven to have a definite effect on the mental health of younger people and has caused a lot of mental health problems like anxiety and depression, which are key factors in suicidal tendencies. But this was never limited to the pandemic. The negative relationship between education and poor mental health in young people has escalated due to Covid, however, it was an issue needing attention way before the pandemic began.

‘The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.’

― Mother Teresa

In 2016 I spent a year at the University of Bristol and, like many freshers, suffered with my own mental health struggles during my time there. I was not alone, and it is saddening to say that others did not make it through to the other side. During the first few weeks of my time there as a fresher there had already been three student suicides. This number rapidly grew, as documented in Hannah Ewens’ article: ‘In the months between October of 2016 and April of 2018, 11 Bristol University students died by suspected suicide. In the year-and-a-half since, that number has risen to at least 13.’

Whilst I was at Bristol I noticed how it was considered as damaging by fellow students, in respect to its clashing statuses as a party university and an institute just below the level of Oxford and Cambridge. In other words, it posed the same expectations academically as the two best universities in the country, but without the same support offered to its students. Ewens goes on to say about Oxford and Cambridge: ‘financial aid is offered by the individual college if you need it.

Tutors will meet frequently with you one-on-one to talk through work and personal issues. Pastoral care at Bristol, however, is structured similarly to that of any other British university: it is objectively hands-off.’ This shows how the pressure of academia is only increasing with every year, and along with many universities' laid back approach to mental health support this can cause the serious decline of mental health for some students. Read Hannah Ewens' article here.

Though the issue is most alarming in university, this increased intensity of education is an issue that affects all ages of students. The pressure of academic perfection can affect people as young as primary school age. At school the emphasis has moved primarily onto grades in order to perfect an image that will translate to employability in the future, everything else comes second: expanding interests, character building and learning how to be happy. This is extreme pressure for all children and understandably so, being told from such an early age that your life needs to be secured would make anybody anxious. Pressure is good in small measures, however, when it gets in the way of learning what you enjoy and what motivates you to be happy, it becomes destructive.

Suicide And Social Media

‘Teens may not need us to check the water temperature or buckle their seatbelts for them anymore, but we still need to make sure they can handle charged issues surrounding them in the media in a safe, healthy way.’

Cora Breumer, physician.

Like anything else, social media can be a very positive place. It can inspire and connect people, teach them and motivate them to act more positively. It has done a lot of good for the world. But consider logging onto social media as a young person who is possibly struggling with issues regarding self-esteem. Unlike other forms of media, the internet is an untameable place and it is difficult to control what a young person can access and absorb, and how they integrate these ideas into their own self-image.

When I was younger I saw social media as a place to fit in, where I can express the parts of myself that I wanted to show to others as that sort of platform only permits us to see what a person wants us to. As I left my teens I found that social media became less of a place where I could express myself, and more of a place where I wanted approval for a post or a picture that wasn’t necessarily depicting me, but rather a warped version of myself, where I would look at the pieces of perfection posted by others, and would hate myself for not being like them. At that time I decided that social media was somewhere I only wanted to be present on to connect with others and learn creatively, and so began to halt my activity there if it wasn’t for those purposes.

I began using social media in my mid-teens and it took me until my twenties to understand how I can use social media in a positive manner, and take away the parts that are damaging. The ages of those who use social media are lowering and from experience, it is harder to know what is damaging and what is empowering when you are younger. Young people are not stupid, but they are more able to absorb and learn from the world around them, and it is easy to construe social media as real life. When you are feeling hopeless about your own life, it is easy to view those pieces of perfection as something unreachable and a reason to let hopelessness manifest.

There is evidence that social media could be a factor for the alarming rise of female suicide; Forbes explains that many researchers view it as a ‘target of interest’.

One study found: ‘the suicide rate for female ages 10-14 had the largest percent increase (200%) during the time period, tripling from 0.5 per 100,000 in 1999 to 1.5 in 2014.’

The time period of this study from 1999 to 2014 coincides with the widespread popularisation of social media, so it is viable that there is a correlation between this and the increase of female suicide rates. It is hard for all genders to observe an image of perfection that is realistically unachievable, but for young girls especially it is ingrained from an early age to aspire for that level of physical perfection and view anything less as failure. Social media has done a lot in the past couple of years to absolve this but it cannot always undo the damage that it can cause.

Mental Health In Parents

In the first years of life we learn how to act, how to express emotions, and how to cope with stress and anxiety, and we learn this primarily from our parents and guardians. They don’t just bring us into life, they teach us how to live those early stages. It is hard being a parent, however, and there is a certain stigma that lies on parents to be perfect. I am not a parent myself, but being an aunt to two toddlers has shown me the pressures that lie on their mum to be consistently switched on and a perfect role model, regardless of her own mental health. This stigma can make it hard for a parent to reach out for the support they may need and this can seep into the awareness of their child.

Just as children learn numerous positive traits from their parents such as manners, social etiquette and work ethics, they also can learn negative coping mechanisms just as easily.

Yale Medicine states the ways that negative mental health in parents can carry over to their children: ‘School-age children with depressed parents may not perform as well academically, have been found in some studies to be more likely to have behaviour problems, and have poorer overall health.’  To prevent the beginnings of suicidal ideations in young people it would help to spread a consciousness that allows parents to be imperfect without discrimination so that children are able to learn that nobody is perfect and should never be expected to.

"To be a good parent, you need to take care of yourself  so that you can have the physical and emotional energy to take care of your family."

― Michelle Obama

How Can We Start a Conversation?

It is important to remember that nothing can match professional help, and it is always best to find a way for a child or teenager to access help from a trained person. However, as this is not always possible when it is most needed, it is essential that we learn how we can talk to young people about suicide and how we can support them to get the help they need. It is worth remembering that the NHS classifies a mental health crisis to be just as critical as a physical health crisis. Many people feel that bringing a suicidal child to A&E would bring stigma and discrimination, but it is a viable option that could prevent a suicidal thought to become an action that is life-threatening -- it is not time-wasting.

‘When kids feel suicidal it’s often because they feel hopeless and can’t imagine things being better.’ 

― Nadine Kaslow, psychologist.

There is a vast amount of support available for parents, guardians and friends to access in order to learn how to speak to young people who are suicidal. Psychologist Nadine Kaslow gives advice on how to suggest therapy as a solution: ‘encourage him to get professional help, and that you convey that getting help isn’t weak, but something you would respect him for doing, and that you would work together to accomplish.’

Talking about suicide to young people doesn’t mean taking on the role of therapist or counsellor, it is reaching out to help lead children into the direction that will turn the lights back on for them. Kaslow provides a number of helpful tips about talking to young people about mental health, which can be accessed here.

Personally I cannot shake the feeling that nowadays children are not permitted to be as childlike as they should. Although I am not qualified to talk about the psychology of child suicide and how we can prevent it, I feel that it might be tied into the current insistence that young people should be pushed to expel childish things. To be a child is to be fascinated with all aspects of the world, no matter how mundane, and to be unapologetic in doing so.

When we are young our minds are free from the limitations of adulthood and our imaginations’ pave our direction in the world rather than logic and sense. I would love to see this nourished rather than stifled, as there is plenty of time for children to grow up. Growing up is inevitable and should be something that children should feel ready for and excited about, rather than fear due to the pressure that they feel from the world around them. Fear breeds hopelessness and feeling hopeless for a child could be the beginning of a negative cycle that could develop into something as unthinkable as suicide.

The Legends Report team offer numerous opportunities for mentoring and counselling to young people struggling with issues regarding suicide. Many of the team have been through suicidal experiences themselves. As well as this, the team are working on numerous workshops and shared counselling sessions to help the friends and loved ones of young people who are struggling with problems that could lead to suicidal thoughts.

These aren’t aimed to show how you can fit into a makeshift therapist role, it is to support you in continuing to be a friend, a parent or a partner as best as you can be. If we support one another we can learn how to tackle this issue we can help our children.

It is difficult to speak to young people about suicide, especially if neither of you know how to, but sometimes talking to them just requires being there and showing them that the way they feel is valid. I know I certainly am not a professional, I don’t know how to talk about suicide, and don’t feel qualified to tell anybody else how to either. But I believe that fact should not stop me from learning to talk about it, it doesn't mean that the topic is out-of-bounds, it never should be. Because talking about it, even if we don’t know-how, helps us know that there is another side to it, and that with support we can reach it. Contact us below or on live chat to find out more about how we can support you.

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