I received a heart-wrenching message from a woman in my LinkedIn network recently. “Susan” said that she has been frustrated with the lack of coverage of mental health issues in the media, and asked if I could help.
I promised to write about it, and I will start by sharing her story. Individual names have been changed to protect privacy.
Susan lost her 20-year-old daughter Amber to suicide six months ago. Her daughter was the third in her graduating class of the same high school to intentionally end her life in three months. Susan learned of this after the school’s vice-principal called to ask if he could share her story with others in her daughter’s graduating class.
Susan’s daughter was a good student and had a long-standing, full-time job. She did not speak with her mother about thoughts of self-harm but had been discussing it with friends. Her friends were very supportive, of course.
But is that support helpful or does it make matters worse?
“In the two days leading up to her (Amber’s) suicide, she planned it all and wrote it down all the way down to the exact dose and how she would feel as it happened,” Susan says, adding that Amber did not have a history of suicidal thoughts and acted on a hasty, “fleeting” thought.
Amber did not discuss thoughts of suicide when she met with her family doctor to increase the strength of her regularly prescribed medication for migraines three days before. She was given a 60-day prescription at 2.5 times her usual dose, which Amber filled and used to end her life.
Susan believes that young people are getting better at hiding signs of trouble from parents and other adults.
“My daughter did discuss feelings of anxiety/being overwhelmed juggling full-time work, school, and a social life, but kids up until their early 20s don’t have a fully developed frontal lobe, which contributes to decision making, and understanding consequences, outcomes, etc,” Susan says. “So while the friends are supportive, they often don’t comprehend the warning signs or know how to help someone or themselves.
“It leaves me wondering; who should have seen it? I don’t know I’ll ever have that answer, but finding out later that she had discussed feeling overwhelmed and anxiety to friends makes my heart break. We could have helped if only we had known.
“These children appeared happy, healthy, and managing. The father of another young person who committed suicide said he was with his son in the days prior, and he also seemed perfectly fine.”
Simply encouraging young people to talk about their mental health is not enough, and can actually be counterproductive if they are not speaking with the right people. There are some signs we should be looking out for, Susan says, including:
- cutting, often done privately and in areas that are not observed easily by others
- confusion regarding sexuality as young people feel increased pressure to identify/categorize
Because many kids are putting on a brave face to keep troubles from parents, it is important that young people are encouraged to bring adults into the discussion, regardless of whether they are the people struggling or friends in whom the troubled youngsters confide.
Parents do not need to be stalking their kids on social media, but it is generally helpful to check in regularly and ask questions of their children that dig beneath the surface. Suicide is often very secretive, and it is critically important to shed light on new warning signs.
Vancouver psychologist Peggy’s practice is focused on those suffering with mental health Issues, and assessing suicide risk. The number of calls to her office has doubled since March of 2020. She offers meaningful insights:
“It is an extremely challenging situation for everyone,” Peggy explains. “When a young person announces to their friends or on social media that they are feeling suicidal, they generally get inundated with messages of love and support. This outpouring of attention and concern can be very gratifying and rewarding, and in some cases can spark the urge to ‘up the ante’ with behaviour.”
This is NOT to suggest that anyone mentioning suicide is simply seeking attention. However, particularly with youth who rely on social media for a substantial amount of their connectedness and validation, receiving numerous messages, calls, likes, and hugs when they are genuinely feeling very isolated, depressed, and alone will provide a sense of feeling valued in that moment.
“A youth may think, ‘If I just say I am suicidal and I get this kind of response, what more would I get if I made an attempt?’ ”
Any mention of suicide MUST be taken seriously, particularly if there are key risk factors and behaviours present. It is important to seek professional help and understand that it is too much pressure to expect family or peers to be responsible for suicidal thoughts, feelings, or behaviours.
“It is important to never minimize someone’s experience by suggesting, ‘It could be worse,’ or ‘You have no idea what it is like to have real problems.’ For family members, accepting the youth’s feelings, and allowing them to feel safe telling you about it, is a huge component in giving them necessary support.”