Due to at least two events in the past few weeks, suicide has made it into conversations of a lot of people in our church — including the students we are ministering to. First came the news that the son of nationally and internationally known Pastor Rick Warren’s son had taken his own life after a life-long battle with mental illness. Then, just last week, suicide struck a lot closer to home with the news that a 7th grade girl — a classmate and teammate of some of our very own students — had taken her life. Our students were rocked by the news.
How can we/should we respond as parents and youth workers? While not exhaustive, here are some very insightful thoughts and helpful tips from Rich Van Pelt and Jim Hancock in The Youth Worker’s Guide to Helping Teenagers In Crisis.
Correct people’s misconceptions about suicide:
Misconception #1: Anyone who tries to kill himself has got to be crazy. Which is to say, half the people in a given room may have felt sad, frustrated, alone, and depressed enough to consider death — but that doesn’t make them crazy. The vast majority of people who commit suicide are ordinary people who didn’t make it because they lost hope. Had they been a little more resilient or held on a little longer, who knows?
Misconception #2: Rich kids who kill themselves more often, because they’re bored with life. Suicide is a truly democratic phenomenon. Rich kids kill themselves; poor kids kill themselves. White kids, Black kids, Irish kids, Norwegian kids — all God’s children kill themselves But mainly it’s adults who kill themselves. The suicide rate for 10-to-14-year-olds is less than 2 in 100,000; for 15-to-19-year-olds the rate hovers near 8 suicide deaths for every 100,000; and 20-to-34-year-olds kill themselves at a rate of nearly 13 for every 100,000. The rates then spike within the next two cohorts, which is important to note because many of the people within these age groups would be the parents of adolescents — about 15 our of every 100,000 among 35-to-44-year-olds, and 16 out of every 100,000 among 45-54-year-olds.
Misconception #3: Suicide runs in her family. No genetic markers have been found to indicate an inherited predisposition toward suicide. That said, there are suicidogenic family patterns that increase the likelihood of suicide. If a parent, older sibling, or someone extremely close commits suicide when children are young, those children may grow to view suicide as an acceptable way of coping — after all, that’s what Grandpa did. Suicide takes the standing of “learned behavior” for them. Later, they may be more inclined than their peers to view suicide as a coping tactic. There may be suicidogenic conditions in some communities and schools where clusters of suicides give the impression of normalcy.
Misconception #4: She killed herself on that gloomy Wednesday. The weather must have depressed her. You’d think. But a higher percentage of suicides take place in nice weather — more in spring than winter, for example. When the weather is gloomy, many people are depressed, and misery loves company. But when nice weather comes along and most people’s spirits are revived, the misery of people who are depressed is intensified.
Misconception #5: Better stay with her tonight! That’s when most suicides happen. Actually, most adolescent suicides occur after school, between three and six o’clock in the afternoon.
Misconception #6: There was something romantic about their suicides. They loved each other so much — they wanted to die together. Anyone who has been at the scene of a suicide knows there’s nothing romantic or beautiful about it.
Misconception #7: There were no clues. She didn’t leave a note. It couldn’t have been a suicide. At most, one in four suicides leaves a note. When suicides increased in North America, police departments and researchers started conducting “psychological autopsies” to reconstruct the relational patterns and interactions of suicidal people. Their findings demonstrate conclusively that the majority of suicides were proceeded by verbal or behavioral clues. Unfortunately, those clues were often missed until the postmortem.
Misconception #8: Suicide is the unpardonable sin! She’ll never be forgiven. There’s nothing in the Bible that represents suicide as a sin that God is either unwilling or unable to forgive. Some Christian traditions take issue with this position, but with due respect, their position tends to feel like a “single issue” concern founded on extra-biblical sources. We certainly don’t welcome the news of any suicide, but we affirm the goodness of God who, even when we are faithless, remains faithful. Taking it upon oneself to end life — whether our own or another’s — is sin. But God’s grace covers a multitude of sins, and suicide is one of them.
Teach perspectives and skills that enliven resilience in adolescents.
In no particular order, resilient kids learn:
- Not to take hardship personally
- Not to blame themselves for the choices of others
- To adapt to change and recover from disappointment
- That every condition, pleasant or unpleasant, is temporary
- To endure difficulty and pain
- A rich emotional vocabulary
- Negotiation skills Empathy
- To laugh at their own humanness
- Appropriate risk taking in hope of appropriate reward
Opportunities to teach these lessons abound in the context of road trips, service projects, camping, creative play, small-group learning, and mission projects. (pp. 215-217)
FREE WEBINAR THURSDAY, APRIL 25th
Center For Parent and Youth Understanding founder Walt Mueller wrote a blog post called Responding to Kids Who “Can’t Handle This Sucky World Any Longer”… which includes information about a free webinar with Rich Van Pelt and Marv Penner on teen suicide on Thursday, April 25th at 1pm that I would recommend you take advantage of if you are able.