Thursday, November 11, 2010

    Let's Start Talking: Teens, Bullying & Suicide Pt. 4

    Part four of a mini series exploring how to invite Christian youth into an examination of the disturbing trend of teen bullying and its consequences. See also parts one and two and three.

    This is the second of several guest posts in this series authored by Dr. Michael E. Kirk, a California-based licensed clinical psychologist, specializing for over twenty-five years in child and adolescent issues. He is a father of three and a grandfather. In this essay, Dr. Kirk shares part one of a two part essay on the issue of teen suicide:

    Teen suicide is a growing concern in that it is the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, surpassed only be homicides and accidents. Suicidal distress can be caused by psychological, environmental, and societal factors. Mental illness is the leading risk factor for teen suicide. Risk factors most certainly include depression and other mental disorders, along with substance abuse disorders. Nearly 90% of teens who die by suicide share these risk factors. The risk for suicide frequently occurs in combination with external circumstances (sexuality issues, parental distress, school and social problems) that seem to overwhelm at-risk teens that are unable to cope with the challenges of adolescence because of these predisposing vulnerabilities, including mental disorders. Example of overt stressors can include:

    • Disciplinary problems delivered excessively by parents
    • Interpersonal losses
    • Family violence
    • Sexual orientation confusion
    • Physical abuse by significant family members
    • Sexual abuse experiences, and
    • Being the victim of bullying

    There are screening tips that are available to identify “at-risk” teens, and they seem to be helpful because research has shown that suicidal individuals show overt signs of depression or emotional distress. Referrals can be made for treatment, and thus effective treatment may be employed when these signs are observed in the teen. Suicide is still a relatively rare event and it is difficult to accurately predict which individuals with these risk factors will ultimately commit suicide.


    Should the teen seem hesitant if queried as to whether or not he or she should become involved in counseling, it is often helpful to remind them that in most states, they can obtain patient-doctor confidentiality regarding their personal lifestyle issues. Indeed, their parents need not know about their counseling participation.

    Some possible warning signs can include:

    Talking about Dying: any mention of dying, disappearing, jumping from high heights, shooting oneself, or other suggested types of self-harm, or past attempts at suicide

    Recently Experienced a Serious Loss: perhaps through the death of a family member or close friend, parent separation or divorce, broken relationships, self-confidence or self-esteem problems, or a felt inability to resolve a sexuality issues, such as being gay yet believing that “no one will accept me,” can create a high stress experience for a teen

    Change in Personality: the teen acting as if he or she is sad, withdrawn, irritable, anxious, tired all the time, indecisive and apathetic, saying “I just don’t care anymore”

    Change in Behavior: The teen cannot seem to concentrate as well as before, cannot handle routine tasks, stops visiting with friends and activities, gives away personal possessions, and takes unnecessary risks, along with increased use of alcohol and/or drugs

    Change in Sleep Patterns: The teen has been sleeping too much or very little, with very early awakening or oversleeping with nightmares

    Change in Eating Habits: The teen has been exhibiting a loss of appetite or possibly even overeating, with significant weight changes observed

    Fear of Losing Control: The teem is acting erratically, may be doing mild acts of self harm, superficial cutting on upper arms or legs or talking about harm toward others

    Low Self-Esteem: The teen is expressing a strong sense of feeling worthless, losses interest in personal appearance, with overwhelming guilt and possible self-hatred, possibly being heard to state: Everyone would just be better off without me here” and

    No Hope for the Future: The teen is reporting that he believes things will never get better, that nothing will ever change.

    Should you notice these changes in an adolescent you should make every effort to have the teen directed toward a mental health counseling program as an immediate source of intervention. Work on LISTENING to the teen, rather than attempt to try to talk him or her out of one’s fears. Let the teen know you are HEARING what he or she is saying, and be willing to endure his or her harsh and often depressive comments. These feelings and fears are very real to them and if you minimize these feelings or problems the teen will feel discounted and view you as an unsupportive person, likely increasing his or her sense of isolation and depression. Asking a teen directly if they are considering committing an act of harm to themselves, as in suicide, often results in “no,” particularly if the teen does not feel as if he or she can trust the person inquiring.

    One in five teenagers in the United States considers suicide annually. Accurately identifying teens with these characteristics is the first step in preventing self-harm acts by these teens. Parents of teens found to be at possible risk can be notified and helped with identifying and connecting to local mental health specialists who can offer expert diagnostic evaluations and treatment. Such mental health screenings can detect teens with depression resulting from their unique self-idealized problems before the fall behind in school, develop adverse life-styles or consider ending one’s life.

    -- Dr. Michael E. Kirk

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