Kristen Anderson’s friends and family were aware that she was unhappy and struggling with life in high school, but none of them knew the depths of her depression. No one expected her to attempt suicide. Yet one cold night in Chicago, 17-year-old Kristen chose to end her life by lying down in front of an oncoming freight train. Miraculously, Kristen survived. She lost both her legs on the railroad tracks, but as she recovered from the ordeal, she discovered the life-transforming power of hope in Christ. In her book, Life, in Spite of Me: Extraordinary Hope After a Fatal Choice, Kristen recounts the nightmare of her suicide attempt and the miracle of her survival. Today, she speaks publicly about her experience, encouraging others who suffer from depression.
Not all teens, however, have that second chance. With the prevalence of teen suicides, parents can’t help but wonder, even worry, about their teen and depression. I remember the day I came across a note my daughter had written and thrown in the trash. In it, my then 16-year-old wrote about how she didn’t think life was worth living, and she detailed how she might end it. How could her life be so bad that she wants to die? I asked myself.
Gripped with fear, I called some friends to ask them to pray, and one of them recommended I contact a counsellor. I made an appointment right away and soon learned that when someone makes a plan like my daughter did, she is likely to attempt to carry it out. As a result of good counselling, my daughter is alive and well today.
But not all parents find clues. Not every depressed or suicidal person displays obvious signs, which include withdrawal from family or friends, destructive behaviour, mood swings or poor eating and sleeping habits. Youth suicide affects families every day in Australia. It is the leading cause of death among young people, with around 350 young people aged 15-24 dying by suicide in 2013.(1)
Although these are startling numbers, what is even more concerning is what we don’t know. Research shows that in this age group, for every one suicide there are approximately 100-200 suicide attempts.(2)
How can parents prevent a tragedy they may not see coming? Communication is a powerful tool, and asking questions is a good place to start. Consider casually bringing up the subject. Start by mentioning that you’ve heard about high teen-suicide rates. Then ask what your teen’s thoughts are about suicide. Is she concerned about any of her friends or classmates? Has anyone at her school attempted suicide? Sometimes just getting a sensitive topic out in the open can defuse its destructive power.
Be sure to listen without lecturing or judging. Be a safe place for your teen to express her thoughts. Especially listen for what she may say about her own life. If your teen says she is depressed, she hates her life or she feels like there is no point to living, take her words seriously. If she admits to having suicidal thoughts, validate her for opening up to you and express gratitude that she’s willing to talk about it.
If you are seriously concerned that your teen is depressed or suicidal, contact a professional counsellor immediately. You need support for yourself as well as help for your teen.
As you converse with your teen, keep in mind that she needs a hope-filled vision for her future. By the teen years, kids understand that they’re living in an imperfect, hurtful world, yet they aren’t fully equipped to handle emotional pain. They may be tempted to believe that life is never going to get better. Without a vision, despair sets in. By helping your teen envision a bright future, you also inspire hope for today.
Consider asking your teen, "After you finish high school, what do you want to do with your life?" or "What are some ways you can use your life to make a difference for others?" You could also talk about events in the near future, such as a family vacation or a shopping excursion. Any picture that offers something to look forward to is a good picture.
Teens desperately need to know they matter, especially to their parents. Assure your adolescent that he is of immeasurable value to you and your family. Look beyond his imperfect exterior to see the qualities that you admire. Create opportunities to tell your teen that you believe in him, God has a plan for his life and he is capable of contributing to the world. Seize every opportunity to show him that he is loved unconditionally, and encourage him to simply live one day at a time.
Above all, pray! Remember that God loves your teen even more than you do. He wants to provide wisdom to help your teen, and He wants to restore joy in the heart of your teen.
If you are dealing with a depressed teen or you need help regarding the threat of suicide in your family, consider visiting your family GP or phoning Lifeline on 13 11 14
(1) Australian Bureau of Statistics (2015). Causes of death, 2013 Cat. no. 3303.0. ABS: Canberra.
(2) Goldsmith SK, Pellmar TC, Kleinman AM, Bunney WE, editors. (2002). Reducing suicide: a national imperative. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.