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Preventing teen suicide: What are the signs and what we can do to help

Teen suicide rates are as high as they have ever been in Australia. The rate of suicidal deaths in migrant families and ethnic communities is a cause for concern and there are several difficulties that these young people face. This can include social disadvantage and family problems. For example, there are higher rates of homelessness in teens from vulnerable families and they have fewer social supports.

Then, there are suicide attempts that may not be successful, but can create risk for the future in young people. These risk issues are an important consideration. Clinicians working with suicide, note, that those who make repeated suicide attempts are often more likely to succeed. There can be a change in personality and a previously social young adult might become withdrawn, lose interest in what they enjoyed doing, Google ways to die, or write good bye notes. Conversely, in some situations, it is a shock for people when they are taken aback at the news of a suicide that seems completely out of character. People often comment how the person in question was cheerful or engaging and didn’t seem to have problems. There were no signs and it was a sudden decision that nobody saw coming.

The big issue is recognising that depression and mental illness can be hard to spot as teenagers can hide how they truly feel and avoid asking for help. Peer pressure can be subtle or extreme and socially anxious teens are more at risk of getting overwhelmed by these factors. Young adults are also very sensitive to family conflict, domestic violence, confusion about relationships, and losses in their lives. It is very important to reach out to encourage good communication between teenagers and their friends, family, and teachers. Reducing isolation can be a key factor in dealing with highly intense emotions and encourage problem-solving skills. It is not helpful to keep these feelings a secret with your child as a parent, as this can build up into a bigger problem as time goes on, and delay help seeking.

For a teenager, it can be a relief to discuss their losses and find ways to build self-confidence and a support network for what is happening in their life. Developing a positive view of life and hope for the future can be very pivotal in working through difficult feelings. This can be very powerful in changing overwhelming situations that feel impossible to control. Adults can have a lot more control in their life than younger age groups, and it is a lot more disempowering for a young person to feel their life is spiralling out of control, than an adult. Feelings of guilt about being a burden or everyone being better off without them are very powerful emotions. This can build a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that increases the risk of an extreme response such as a decision to escape from the situation.

It is important to talk to a professional to help with looking at the situation earlier rather than leaving it for too long. For example, medical advice is important about factors such as sleep, appetite, mood changes, and any medical issues that might need to be considered. In terms of making changes in how to deal with one’s thoughts and feelings, mental health clinicians, in particular, help with building positive thoughts that help change negative behaviours, increase good mental health practices, and build good problem-solving skills. It is also important for friends and family of someone feeling suicidal to get advice and help about how to cope and to deal with their emotions. This is especially important for families who may not have too much support in migrant communities and might fear being judged or lose their friends and be blamed or stigmatised by what is happening. These are very confronting situations to deal with for everyone and opening up and talking to professionals and your support network can decrease the isolation and create very positive connections. Pick up the phone and talk to Lifeline, at any time. There is every chance that with support we can have happier and more empowered teens, who can learn to cope with negative thoughts, build resilience, and be a positive role model for their peers and own life as they grow into adulthood. We can reach out and make a difference with the smallest caring and compassionate gesture of hope. One small step can save a life.

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Truth or Dare: Risk taking in teenagers

Adolescence in an age when there is so much development in the brain it is like a bullet train with poor brakes. This can be very emotionally confusing. The teenage brain can decide things like shaking a tree to push it over can be good fun without thinking of the risks. Indeed, the teenager in question was in a wheelchair when we discussed how it had happened.

We take more risks as teenagers than at any other age and are still developing decision-making and self-control skills. In particular, substance abuse can be an added risk factor for affecting the adolescent brain, when it is still developing. Unless you decide to be a stuntman, you are probably going to take more risks as a teenager than at any other time.

Risk taking is important from a developmental point of view and important for children to learn the skills to step out of their comfort zone, take a risk, and face success or failure in a positive way. It is a right of passage to adulthood, so to speak where we are expected to make independent choices and take different risks in life.

In fact, most adults agree about the kinds of things that are important for adults to do with young people—encourage success in school, set boundaries, teach shared values, teach respect for cultural differences, guide decision making, give financial guidance, and so on (Scales, Benson, & Roehlkepartain, 2001). However, fewer actually act on these beliefs to give young people the kind of support they need.

Helping children take healthy risks and learn to develop their identity is important. Having the opportunity to be asked open ended questions so they think through what they are feeling or what they feel is right or wrong. Adolescence is the first time individuals have the cognitive capacity to consciously sort through who they are and what makes them unique. Identity refers to more than just how adolescents see themselves right now; it also includes what has been termed the “possible self”—what individuals might become and who they would like to become. The process by which an adolescent begins to achieve a realistic sense of identity also involves experimenting with different ways of appearing, sounding, and behaving. Each adolescent approaches these tasks in his or her own unique way. So, just as one adolescent will explore more in one domain (e.g., music), another will explore more in another (e.g., adopting a certain style or appearance).

Professionals whose role involves advising parents or adolescents can assure them that most experimentation is a positive sign that adolescents feel secure enough to explore the unknown. Adolescents who fail to experiment in any realm are sometimes seen to be more stable but may, in fact, be experiencing more difficulty than youth who seem to flit from one interest to another. Adolescence is a time when experimenting with alternatives is developmentally appropriate, except when it seriously threatens the youth’s health or life. Although it may seem a simple strategy, professionals and trusted adults such as family members and parents can help adolescents begin to define their identity through the simple process of taking time to ask questions and listen without judgment to the answers. It is amazing how many youth are hungry to discuss these issues with a trusted adult, and how few are offered the opportunity. Discussing these issues can also help adolescents to develop their new abstract reasoning skills and moral reasoning abilities.

Dr Raj Khillan is Director, Western Specialist Centre, and Dr Malini Singh is a psychologist at Change for Life


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