Mind Matters: Addressing teen suicide

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the world for those aged 15 to 24. “Beneath the Surface: A Teen’s Guide to Reaching Out When You or a Friend Is in Crisis,” by Kristi Hugstad, offers a prescriptive for averting teen suicide.

After her husband completed suicide, Hugstad wanted to find effective ways to help others on the same path. While the highest suicide rate is among white, middle-aged males, Hugstad’s focus is on teens, possibly because she may have considered the roots of her husband’s suicide to have taken hold in those formative years of his life.

Her book speaks directly to teens, but it is also a primer for parents and educators. For teens, she says, the most important thing is to “speak up. Call a friend, see a professional, talk to your parents. … No matter how much you isolate yourself, you are not alone. Reach out and help will come.”

To parents and educators, Hugstad says “education is key. … [Become familiar] with signs and symptoms.” Ask important, direct questions, such as “Do you have a suicide plan?”

Kudos to Hugstad for confronting this topic head-on. However, there are numerous instances where both professionals and loved ones have been stymied as to how to help. Even when asked directly, there is no guarantee that the depressed and suicidal person will reach out and answer honestly. Nevertheless, that should not stop us from asking.

Hugstad’s book for a teen in crisis may be a starting point. She clearly outlines a depression self-assessment with questions about lack of concentration, difficulties with sleep, hopelessness, withdrawal, problems with grades. While depression does not necessarily lead to suicide, it can be a precursor.

Another precursor, sadly, is bullying. Citing the Journal of the American Medical Association, Hugstad reports that “peer victimization and bullying causes higher rates of suicides, with cyber-bullying specifically leading to more thoughts of suicide than traditional bullying.”

Bullying can destroy another at any age and the bully and the victim aren’t confined to the schoolyard. The antidote to bullying is to take steps to thwart it. Says Hugstad, “Bullies thrive when those around do nothing. … help preserve the self-esteem, confidence, health, and perhaps even the life of someone you know.”

In addition to bullying, Hugstad discusses peer pressure, self-harming behavior, anxiety, depression, trauma, substance abuse, and technology addiction. While these issues may not be a direct cause of suicide, they may be contributing factors.

Hugstad notes that teens who attempt suicide are wanting an escape route from whatever is going on in themselves and in their lives. It is okay, advises Hugstad, for parents to talk about suicide.

As part of her educating both parents and teens regarding suicide, Hugstad delivers a list of myths to be busted. For example, a teen talking about suicide is not “looking for attention” and needs to be taken seriously. On the other hand, talking to teens about suicide and suicidal thoughts does not increase risk. “Addressing painful subjects … creates a safe space and a sense of relief for the individual having those thoughts.” Knowing that someone cares and making help accessible is important.

Remember that suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens, so it is not rare. But suicidal thoughts aren’t rare either—at some point or other, many people have had fleeting thoughts of suicide. Despite known risk factors for suicide, such as previous attempts, access to lethal means, stress, abuse, it must be noted that sometimes a person that has no known risk factors may complete suicide. Sometimes a person can hide their inner turmoil and keep up appearances.

While we look for signs, sometimes they may not be readily evident. Teens (and adults) may not seem sad beforehand and the suicide may be an impulsive act, “perhaps a sudden response to a major stressful event.”

Be that as it may, we can look for teen warning signs,. A few are listed here: changes in sleep and eating, withdrawal, depression, giving away possessions, talking about suicide or death. Hugstad urges us to take action and get conversation going with the person.

Hugstad’s antidote is instilling hope. She says: “Depression is a disease, but it is a disease you can treat and cope with. Understand that your negative feelings are temporary and how you feel is a choice — not a reflection of who you are. Recognizing this and talking about how you feel  makes depression less powerful — and that breeds hope.”

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About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.

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