Heading Off Teen Suicide  - Watch for Signs

This story was first published by Portland Press Herald 11/09/2015:

When Gavin Clark took his own life last month, some members of his community understandably blamed a culture of bullying at the Wiscasset teen’s school, where Clark was teased for his learning disability.

But while the harmful effects of bullying should not be dismissed, the cause of suicide is rarely so cut and dried.

Family, friends and community members attend a memorial service in Wiscasset on Oct. 17 for 15-year-old Gavin Clark of Alna, who took his own life Oct. 10. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans age 10 to 24. Family, friends and community members attend a memorial service in Wiscasset on Oct. 17 for 15-year-old Gavin Clark of Alna, who took his own life Oct. 10. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans age 10 to 24. 2015 Press Herald file photo/Derek Davis photo-store Search photos available for purchase: Photo Store → Suicide would be easier to understand, and to solve, if it could be attributed easily to any one cause. Instead, it is the result of a complex mix of emotions and circumstances that is difficult to identify, and to untangle.

And even though as a society we have gotten better at recognizing and responding to those risk factors, teen suicide remains hard to crack.

What is certain, though, with each new tragedy, is that we can’t stop talking about it. Teens suffering from thoughts of despair and hopelessness have to know that those feelings are not permanent, and that they are not the only ones in anguish.

And it is clear they are not alone.

Suicide for all age groups has been on the rise in the United States for the last decade.

For Americans ages 10 to 24, it is the second leading cause of death. One in six high school students has seriously considered suicide, and 1 in 12 has made an attempt.

In Maine, someone under 25 takes their own life every two weeks.

In each case, there are usually warning signs: loss of enthusiasm for once-loved hobbies, talk about death and hopelessness, change in sleeping patterns, mood swings extreme even for a typical teenager, and increased use of drugs and alcohol, among others.

Parents, friends, teachers and other school personnel – the people closest to teens and most likely to recognize changes in behavior – have to know these warning signs, and take them seriously.

Up to 90 percent of youths who have attempted suicide have a history of treatable psychiatric, behavior or substance-abuse disorder, and early intervention is very effective.

It is with good reason that suicide awareness and prevention is taught as a part of the health class curriculum in Maine middle and high schools, and starting this year all school personnel are required to attend in-service training on the topic every five years.

There is, however, room for more. The stigma surrounding suicide makes it a difficult topic for anyone to bring up, particularly a teenager who already feels alienated.

For a while, too, it was thought that mentioning suicide around troubled teens made suicide more likely.

But we know now that it is better to be up front about suicide, and about how the wrong mix of brain chemistry and outside events can make death seem like the only way out of a teen’s current difficulties.

The better that teens understand that those feelings can pass, and that they have passed for others like them, the more likely that they’ll react to the despair by seeking help, and another community won’t have to get together, too late, and ask why.