Not just another statistic: an examination of teen suicide

March 9, 2020 — by Marisa Kingsley and Andy Chen

Editor's note: Jack and Alice are pseudonyms to maintain the sources’ anonymity. 

For Alice, feeling like an “unsurpassable weight” is pressing on her shoulders is normal. 

“I feel empty and have felt empty for as long as I can remember,” she said. “It feels like I’m in this dark hole, and I’m falling, and I’m trying to scream and reach out and yell for help, but no matter how much I try, I can’t get out.”

These feelings have resulted in a battle with suicidal thoughts and depression. She said that before she opened up to about her struggles in person, she turned to online counseling services like 7 Cups, which connected her to therapists and other peers going through similar hardships — all with the safety of anonymity. 

“As a group, we were able to talk through possible situations and coping mechanisms,” she said.

Alice credits these strangers with providing her with validation and hope, which helped her “start to understand that [she] wasn’t some monster or some crazy person.” 

Despite the school’s accessible mental health resources such as CASSY, suicidal thoughts are still prevalent among students here: Out of the 1,164 students who took the California Healthy Kids Survey last March, 33 said that they had attempted suicide, 196 seriously considered suicide and 56 had made a plan for suicide. 

These results reflect an alarming national trend: the increase in teen suicide in the past decade. According to PBS News Hour, the national youth suicide rate has been gradually rising, from 12.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 17 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017. In the same year, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that suicide was the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 10 to 34. 

According to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), research consistently shows depression, both clinical (which is caused by physiological factors), and situational (which is due to environmental factors) to be intrinsically linked to suicide. Ninety percent of people who die by suicide had an existing mental illness or substance abuse problem. 

 

The role of academic stress in trends

While researchers can’t pinpoint a definitive cause for rising depression and suicide rates, one explanation is increased academic stress. In a Washington Post article, award-winning journalist and social commentator Jennifer Breheny Wallace discussed how students at high-achieving schools are now considered an at risk group and experience higher rates of behavioral and mental health problems, compared to the national average. 

“Facing record-low acceptance rates at top colleges, many students feel tremendous pressure to achieve and résumé-build in all aspects of their young lives,” Wallace wrote. “Anxiety can come from worrying about keeping up with or outshining peers, while depression can be caused by a failure to achieve.”

This was the case for Jack, as the combination of an undiagnosed learning disability and intense parental pressure to succeed academically resulted in suicidal ideations and depression starting in fourth grade. He said he didn’t know about his learning disability at the time but remembers how he always felt stupid because he couldn’t keep up with his peers. 

“In elementary school, I knew something was wrong, because it didn’t seem like my peers constantly wanted to die,” he said. 

He didn’t start to understand how bad his mental health condition was until sixth grade when his peers started to talk about mental health. He also read pamphlets about depression and remembers having all the symptoms listed which, according to Mayo Clinic, can be irritability, negativity, feelings of worthlessness, anger, poor performance or attendance in school and loss of interest in normal activities. 

 

Colliding cultures with mental health

When Jack opened up to his parents about his suicidal thoughts, they didn’t believe him and instead told him that “kids couldn’t feel like dying” and that kids “don’t have stress,” leaving him feeling frustrated, tired and alone. At the same time, his grades started to “take a beating” and he was finding it difficult to maintain a social life. 

“I was basically just in survival mode trying to drag myself through life,” he said. “I didn’t have the energy to do schoolwork or drag myself through the day and my constant worrying about things kept me up through the night, even though I was tired and exhausted from being sad.”

He started to retaliate against his parents by doing less homework on the weekends and trying to live a more balanced lifestyle. 

His parents didn’t take it well. Jack recalls that he was told he was a bad child, as well as a burden on the family for not engaging in more extracurricular activities. 

Jack wasn’t able to receive professional help or diagnoses for his learning disability or his mental illnesses until three years ago, when he convinced his parents to allow him to do a neuropsychological test that analyzes how an individual’s brain affects his or her thinking skills and behaviors. 

The test revealed that he had high levels of depression and anxiety, and the doctor advised that he be put on medication and therapy before his mental health worsened. 

Although Jack has been on medication ever since, he said he still grapples with suicidal thoughts, which often drain his energy and make completing schoolwork difficult. However, he has learned strategies to cope with them.

“Breaking it down into smaller pieces does help me though,” he said. “For example, ‘I just gotta make it till the end of today’ or ‘OK, finish five problems of this math homework for now, only five problems.’”

Additionally, Jack said that the stigma many adults hold is especially tough to deal with.

“I know I am currently almost shunned by quite a few parents because they found out I was on meds,” he said. “It comes from the stigma of them being taught: ‘kids can't have suicidal thoughts’ or ‘depression doesn't exist in young people’ or the ‘suck it up and move on’ mentality.”

The stereotype of students with mental health struggles or mental illness as social outcasts or lazy is one of many stigmas that pervade society. According to World Psychiatry, the journal of the World Psychiatry Association, stigma surrounding mental illness often results in withholding help, and avoidance of the mentally ill based on the idea that people with severe mental illness deserve to be feared.

Jack said that he believes that many kids are more educated about mental health and mental illness than their parents. In his case, his parents, both immigrants from India, didn’t face the daily academic pressures he does. 

“They told me they lived happy normal teenage lives and that was the norm for their friends too; they never were faced with this much school work,” he said.

Because his parents had a different set of struggles, they aren’t able to understand his mental health issues..

High academic pressure, physiological makeup or parental expectations are not the only factors that precipitate a descent into depression. For members of the LGBTQ+ community, fear of familial or societal rejection of their sexual orientation or gender identity can culminate in struggles with mental health.

When Alice first realized she was gay in eighth grade, she describes how that revelation about her identity added weight to her shoulders rather than giving her relief. In her family’s culture, being gay is taboo.

The fear of being rejected by her family and possibly being kicked out of her home weighed on her heavily, and she found herself trapped in a dark place. 

“I thought: ‘I’m not supposed to be here,’ ‘I’m not supposed to be this way,’ ‘I don’t deserve to be here’ — and that just spiraled into something so much worse.”

That “something so much worse” includes a variety of symptoms of depression, including being unable to sleep, higher levels of anxiety and loss of appetite. 

In fact, LGBTQ+ youth are one of the most at risk groups. Research at the National LGBT Health Education Center found that LGBTQ+ adults and youth are at an extraordinarily high risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior. Additionally, a 2019 survey by The Trevor Project, an organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ+ youth, found that 39 percent of LGBTQ+ youth surveyed seriously considered suicide in the past year. 

While Alice was able to vent about her struggles on chat rooms anonymously, she knew she had to come out to someone because she couldn’t bear living with the weight of not being able to be genuine with her friends and others.  

Alice first came out as gay to one of her teachers, since she felt if someone with “more authority” accepted her, she would feel more comfortable telling her friends. She said that coming out to her friends afterwards — despite how scary it felt —was a huge relief.

  “That was the main tipping point of realizing ‘you know what, there’s people that accept me,’” she said. “In the worst case, if I get kicked out of the house and something happens, I’ve got places to go, I’ve got people to turn to.”

Despite having the support of her friends, Alice has not come out to her family yet. She still combats suicidal thoughts, and said that she struggles to cope with them in healthy ways. However, she said she is thankful to have their support and she said her friends are always there to talk to her she needs to, even on her bad days. 

“I don’t want to make it seem like talking to people about what was going on made me happy or made me all fixed or made everything OK,” she said. “It just made me more able to be real with myself, more able to be true to myself just a little bit more than before.”

 

Positive steps moving forward: how to help

CASSY therapist Alex Espinosa recommended that friends of the person dealing with depression or suicidal ideations encourage them to be aware of the happiness present in their life, rather than brushing over their struggles or acting as professional therapists. 

She also stressed that those struggling with suicidal thoughts or contemplating suicide should seek help from a trusted adult, because they are often unable to support themselves in a healthy manner, which leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as over-eating or self-harm. 

“When you’re immersed in your own thoughts, especially negative thoughts like that, you can’t support yourself in a positive way,” Espinosa said. 

As for those currently hesitant to open up to a trusted adult about their suicidal thoughts, Espinosa understands that it’s easy to convince yourself that nobody has “ever felt the way you feel.” However, she said that is untrue, and there are ways to get help. 

“You aren’t someone who is alone, there are people that feel the way that you feel, and by not asking for help you’ll never realize that,” she said. “People have been in your position and there are ways out.”

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