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Teens and students everywhere struggle with depression and teen suicide is on the rise, sort of. In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, conversations about suicide and depression abound. I have counselled a number of teens contemplating suicide, and an even larger number of teens struggling with depression.
Since 1991 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that annually, the number of teens contemplating suicide has dropped, from 29% to 17%, while the number of teens actually attempting suicide have gradually increased, from 7.3% to 8%. Take note; 17% is nearly one in five teens. Let’s put that in perspective. For every ten teenagers active in your church’s youth ministry, two of them will contemplate suicide this year.
For every ten teenagers active in your church’s youth ministry, two of them will contemplate suicide this year.
The CDC also reports that suicide is the number three cause of teen death in America, followed by homicide and accidents. Student ministers should have a plan for ministering to suicidal teens and their families, because if you stay in youth ministry long enough, a teen will confide in you that they have hurt themselves, or have thought about suicide. So how should youth leaders and volunteers respond?
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA) has some great tips that all youth workers should take to heart. This list is adapted from their full list of tips, which can be found here. When a teen mentions suicide or exhibits signs they may be suicidal:
- Be direct. Do not change the subject. Do not appear uncomfortable or act shocked. Speak matter-of-factly and be open to hearing everything the teen has to say. Many teens are an open book, especially if they trust you. They have extremely high B.S. meters, and can tell if you are not being direct. If a teen comes to you and wants to discuss hurting himself or suicide, give them (and their conversation) the seriousness and frankness they deserve.
- Listen. Many times a mention of suicide is a plea for help itself. The teen came to you! They want to talk, and more important than any advice you could give them, you can give them your undivided attention. I had a teen approach me with suicidal thoughts one time and instead of starting Bible study on time, I gave more time to our conversation. I had a parent volunteer who was irate that I didn’t start the lesson on time and that Bible study was only ten minutes that evening, but my conversation with the potentially suicidal teen took priority.
- No secrets. Never guarantee confidence in a conversation when a student’s safety is on the line. Their parents have a right to know if the teen is threatening to hurt themselves, and once a teen has mentioned suicide, you have a responsibility to try and seek out help for the student.
- Take Action. When a student says they are going to hurt themselves, parents should be notified in a loving and calm way. Telling a parent that their teen is contemplating suicide is one of the most uncomfortable and heartbreaking conversations a youth minister can have. Parents will exhibit a variety of emotions, like failure, denial, and even anger. Suggest agencies and organizations in your area equipped to handle crisis intervention and suicide prevention. If the student comes from an abusive home, contact the agencies directly on the student’s behalf.
- Offer them sincere hope. Depression is no joke. The home lives of students are no joke. Bullying is no joke. Anxiety over sexuality is no joke. Any one of these factors (and many more) can potentially lead to suicidal thoughts. As Christian mentor, you may have the great privilege and responsibility of reminding a teen that they are loved by you and by the Lord. You can remind them that God is constantly present. You can read some scripture together, and you can pray with them. Most importantly, never gloss over their pain by saying things like “just give your sadness over to Jesus,” or “God wants you to be happy,” or “living in defeat is a sin.” The only thing these statements to is mask our own discomfort.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and I have passed it out to an entire youth group before, knowing the three kids I was really targeting. Suicide is a serious topic and it effects too many teens for the church to not take note and speak out. How have you addressed suicide with your students and parents? Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.