As a mental health clinician, mother of three teenagers, and a depression survivor I find the suicide rates in our state and country alarming. Many people are asking and looking into this teen suicide epidemic. Recently, Governor Herbert seemed to think it was important enough to form a committee/coalition to find some solutions.
When I was in my adolescent years (25 years ago), suicide happened occasionally, but not to the extent we are seeing now. What’s different? In reflecting on my clinical experiences and personal experiences, I’ve come up with a few ideas.
We need to build connection-
Connection with people- Brene Brown stated, “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
When I was struggling with depression as an adolescent, I had a few excellent neighbors who let me into their homes when life felt confusing. They didn’t try to fix me. They just accepted me. I had a cousin that did the same. He and his wife would listen to my concerns. I don’t remember anything they said, but I knew their home was a safe haven for me. Today’s kids need neighborhoods, friends, and family who welcome them with open arms and provide safe havens.
Connection to spirituality. Spirituality does not necessarily mean the same thing as religion. Spirituality can be anything that connects oneself to something outside themselves (animals, nature, the cosmos etc.). I was deeply tied to God in my adolescence, but it was more than that. It was the knowledge that there was more to life than me. I understood that I was part of a bigger whole. I don’t think I really appreciated what that meant when I was younger. But looking back on my life I realize that my love of God connected me to things outside myself. Deepak Chopra stated “There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.” The adolescent population today needs to be connected to spiritual things.
2. Systems Theory
Systems theory was the foundation for my training as a marriage and family therapist. Think in terms of a car engine or bicycle. All the parts work together to give the machine life. It’s the same in families. 1 + 1 does not equal 2. It is fundamentally more than that. The family is its own entity. Everybody has a role. Everybody has a part. When looking at dysfunction family therapists look at the entire family. It is not unusual for parents to bring their children to me expecting me to “fix” them. Most often the child is the one exhibiting symptoms of a family problem. Generally, it’s the family system that needs the fixing. It’s the same with our society and culture here in Utah.
Adolescents are the symptom bearers of our culture as a whole. Fix the system and the symptoms go away. Therein lies a much bigger problem than any committee can fix. But we can do little things in our homes that can change the larger system. First, we can start encouraging creative problem-solving. Our culture is very stuck in black and white thinking. For example, think of the immigrant issues we are dealing with. Some people want amnesty. Some want deportation. Both options are at either end of a spectrum. Why only two options? In between are a lot of other possibilities that nobody is talking about. The same goes for suicidal ideation. People contemplating suicide are thinking in terms of absolutes even when there are countless other options. Stay creative at home and the grains of solving problems in constructive ways will be sown.
Second, encourage feelings. We are living in an age that discourages feelings. We just aren’t taught how to use feelings to our advantage. Feelings are the flags that tell us something is going on that we need to pay attention to. We need to practice feeling. All feelings are good – angry, sad, happy, embarrassed, excited, etc. Learning to be comfortable with feelings is rarely accepted in our culture. It’s considered weak. In truth, recognizing your feelings can be a powerful tool in making deliberate choices. It’s what we choose to do with the feelings that change outcomes.
When all is said and done I think the teen years can be pretty exciting. There are new things to learn, new relationships built, and new ideas to be created. One death to suicide is one death too many. Taking little steps in your own life and in your own families will help to change the tide. Like a ripple effect, our small course changes can start to change this epidemic of suicide.