Few traumas in life create the wide-ranging and devastating repercussions that a suicide leaves in its wake. Parents, siblings, teachers, and therapists question how they might have “done more.”
Second-guessing, however, brings little comfort to those left behind. Judith E. Bessette (FL), EdD, a retired IECA therapeutic educational consultant and founder of Compass Educational Consulting, knows firsthand about the impact. During her active consultant years, she lost six clients, and her son, to suicide and accidental drug overdoses.
“I am certain that four of them, including my son’s, were intentional,” she said in a recent phone interview. “The world is just too hard a place for some gentle souls. There is anger and palpable mistrust, almost hatred. We’ve lost civil discourse, which is very difficult for these kids, especially those with a genetic predisposition for addictions and other serious mental health problems.”
Her anecdotal evidence lines up with research-based numbers. Suicide is currently the second-leading cause of death among those 10-34 years old, and the number of Americans 10-24 who took their own lives has increased by 60 percent between 2007 and 2018.
I personally have seen an uptick in the last few years of young people suffering from anxiety, depression, and the desire to hurt themselves or end their lives. I recently experienced my first suicide with a former client. You never think it could happen, but it can.
Many Contributing Factors
With youth suicide rates increasing over time, experts point to several societal changes and influences as the cause. Since 2007, we’ve witnessed an economic recession, increasing concerns about climate change, and an ever-staggering number of school shootings. Such traumatic incidents leave emotional scars on all young people, not just those directly involved.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. While suicide rates did decline slightly among most Americans during the pandemic, the numbers for males aged 10-34 years went up. In addition, from February 21 to March 20, 2021, emergency room visits for girls aged 12-17 suspected of attempting suicide were 50.6 percent higher compared to statistics from 2019.
IECA Associate member Gabriela Deambrosio (IL), MEd, worked on-site at an international boarding school during the pandemic. “The pandemic did something to our kids,” she says. “The impacts of lengthy tech-centric isolation, uncertainty, and virtual learning were visible; poor nutrition, self-harm, suicidality, and hopelessness were pervasive; they are suffering and desperate to be seen.“ One of her students killed himself on his 18th birthday, just hours before his parents were due to pick him up for a school break.
Deambrosio attributes social media as a contributing factor. “Social media is the cigarettes of the past; we still have yet to see its full effect,” she says. “It’s become a haven of despair, where misery loves company, and suicide ‘how-to’ manuals are just a search away.”
I agree that the internet has heavily influenced the jump in suicides amongst children and young adults in recent years. Some websites tell you how to self-harm, starve yourself, and commit suicide. In addition, young people can access dealers and drugs like fentanyl online. Dealers drop drugs off at their homes without their parents even knowing.
IECA member Ruby Laufer (NJ), Dobson Educational Services, agrees with her peers, listing “increased social isolation, online bullying, and social media use“ as likely causes for the uptick in suicide rates. “Social media can take a heavy toll on one’s self-esteem. When things are not going well, and it looks like all of your peers on social media are having a great life, it can add to one’s feelings of despair and the sense of ‘being left out.'”
Mental Health Problems Increased during the Same Period
The CDC says that in 2019, more than one in three high schoolers experienced sadness or hopelessness persistently. Compared to numbers in 2009, that’s 40 percent higher. In addition, anxiety and depression are both skyrocketing among teens.
Like anxiety and depression, suicide is linked to poor mental health. The World Health Organization estimates that 90 percent of those who commit suicide have some form of mental health disorder.
The problem is even more significant among LGBTQ+ youth. Statistically, lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens are twice as likely to experience persistent sadness or hopelessness than their heterosexual peers. Furthermore, transgender youth are twice as likely to experience depression, contemplate suicide, or even attempt suicide than cisgender LGBQ+ youth.
Along with this rise in mental health issues, academic pressures on American youths have increased. Pew Research Center cites academic pressure as a top concern facing teens today, with 61 percent reportedly feeling pressured to get good grades.
I believe excessive internet use plays a significant part in “school-related“ mental health issues. I’m seeing school refusal and the inability to get out of bed because the students are online all night. As a result, they fall behind and lose interest or give up because it’s too overwhelming.
Despite the undeniable pressures of the modern world, there are ways to help these students tackle their mental health challenges effectively.
Proper Treatment Helps
It’s essential to ensure that teens suffering from mental health issues get treatment. In addition, it’s vital to properly treat mental health issues before they get severe enough to cause suicidal ideations. Many treatment options are available, including talk therapy in individual and group settings, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), other therapeutic modalities, and psychiatric medications.
“I think there are schools and programs that can save many children,” Bessette says. “We’ve barely broken the barrier of societal acceptance of mental health issues.”
When is it time to seek professional help? First, IECs should advise parents to watch for significant changes in behavior, such as grades dropping and new, unhealthy friendships. Other signals may include a change in sleeping patterns, loss of interest in things that used to be important, isolation, secretive behavior, and abrupt weight changes, whether it be gain or loss.
“When you start seeing those things, it’s time to get professional help,” Bessette says. “The tricky part is approaching it and getting some buy-in from the child. If you ask them, ‘Is something wrong? No. Do you need help? No.'”
Enlisting a close relative, family friend, or IEC might help the child agree that they need help.
Deambrosio says giving kids space to fail forward in a safe and nurturing learning environment is essential. “Due to many factors, today’s children lack opportunities to ‘fail forward,’ so they struggle to demonstrate stamina when tasks become increasingly stressful and challenging,” she explains. “Enduring difficulties, a.k.a. failing, is a part of life, and we learn more through failure and struggle than we do when tasks are simpler. We learn that better days are ahead, and we must persevere.”
She feels schools need to de-emphasize grades and assessments and instead focus on “pragmatic learning.”
“We must reassess how we teach our children, from top to bottom, and get back to the basics. We need to focus on skills and train teachers more in psychology,” she says. “It starts at the policy and administrative level. Although valuing teachers in our society is fundamental, parents and teachers are the first line of defense to identify signs and implement early interventions.”
Suppose a teen is experiencing issues with their mental health. In that case, getting them in to see a psychologist or psychiatrist for an evaluation is essential. Mental health professionals can recommend an individualized treatment plan and get them on the right path before their despair becomes a suicide attempt.
Laufer believes, “Good testing helps us better understand what is happening with our clients. And solid therapeutic support can help get kids back on the right track, emotionally, socially, and academically.”
Education and Mental Health Treatment Working Hand in Hand
Students often benefit from education and mental health treatment when they operate in the same facility, in tandem with one another. Whether a student is receiving therapy at their school or getting an education at a mental health treatment facility, the joined forces of personalized instruction and mental health programs have proven very effective. Many students can also benefit significantly from a wilderness therapy program, where they spend several weeks living in nature as a treatment technique.
Many educational options incorporate mental health treatment, prevent suicide ideation, and can ultimately help children, teens, or young adults achieve their full potential. Therapeutic educational consultants can use their vast knowledge and understanding of available accredited programs to find the best option for each young person.
By Gail Curran, MS, MBA, CEP, IECA (AZ)