PLATTSBURGH — Why do kids end their lives by suicide?
In almost every case, said Bonnie Black, director of Employee Assistance Services at Behavioral Health Services North, there’s no simple answer.
It’s not just bullying.
Or a breakup. Or social media.
“It may appear to be what could be labeled a triggering event,” she said. “But we can’t point to one thing — it’s multi-factoral.”
What all teens have in common is that they’re teens.
“Our brain doesn’t finish until we’re 25 or 26,” Black said. “Adult society expects adolescents to act like an adult.”
But the frontal lobe — the part of the brain that controls judgment, impulse control and other crucial thinking isn’t doing its full job when kids are passing through those tumultuous years.
As a result, teens are impulsive, Black said.
“When you’re impulsive, you may make choices that involve risk.
If there’s substance, alcohol abuse, she added, “that lowers inhibitions, so the risk is greater.”
A LOT OF STRESS
Mental illness is frequently one of those factors.
But not necessarily.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control says that, compared to older people, adolescents and young adults who die by suicide aren’t as likely to have suffered from clinical depression or other mental disorders.
Dave Manney, dean of students at Beekmantown High School, and Beekmantown Middle School Teacher Mike Johnson, who both serve on the district’s Crisis Team, acknowledged the stresses of being a student in today’s world and the added challenges the stresses pose when it comes to prevention.
“They come here every day; they excel in academics or they struggle in academics; they go to do sports or are involved in drama; then they go home and do homework, and then they still just have their own life to live,” Manney said.
“When you put all that in perspective, there’s a lot of stress to being a student other than just showing up and going to school.”
Julia Mull, now 18, thought about suicide when she was a preteen at Beekmantown Middle School.
She had developed anxiety and depression.
Struggling with a class at school, she felt pressure from her classmates and parents.
“Everything was heightened,” she said. “Everything felt like I was climbing Mount Everest.”
Talking to a counselor helped turn things around for her.
There is also the new generational challenge of social media.
“It’s that idea that kids are connected now all the time,” Johnson said. “You can’t go home and get away from stress. You’re constantly connected to other kids.
“And kids’ conversations when they’re 11 or 12 years old, away from their parents, aren’t always appropriate.”
Social media has its positive uses, AuSable Valley Central School Superintendent Paul Savage observed.
“But unfortunately, it can also be used and viewed as a negative, especially for people who are predisposed to mental health issues and/or are vulnerable to negative social media posts.
“It can be a hurtful tool for anyone, but when you’re young and going through a difficult time or trying to figure out life, it could have a major negative effect on one’s mental and physical health.
“People always need to be more aware and sensitive to what is posted and shared.
About 94 percent of those who die by suicide show signs ahead of time, Black said.
Sometimes, there seems to be nothing to point to.
Zander LaDuke’s family and friends say the Beekmantown High School senior gave no clue before ending his own life last December.
He had expressed feelings of sadness and had seen a doctor a few weeks earlier, his mother, Amanda, said. But otherwise, he’d been an active kid with a wide range of interests and no apparent underlying issues.
It’s fairly common for families, after a suicide, to say they have no idea what prompted it, said Amanda Allen, executive director of NAMI: Champlain Valley, a peer-run mental health support organization in Plattsburgh.
“Later on, as they go through the grieving process they may identify signs,” she said.
But some families never know.
KIDS BOUNCE BACK
It’s important to remember the underdeveloped frontal lobe, Black said — that tendency to make impulsive choices.
An adolescent may take that irreversible step one minute, or, if someone happens to intervene at just the right time, never consider it again, Black said.
After a suicide, she said, “when we look at it forensically, there may be an indicator to show where a trusted adult intervening may have reduced the risk.
“Kids bounce back,” she said, “but we need to be able to go in at that moment and be that nonjudgmental person.
“Sitting in silence is fine,” she added.
Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed for a child to regain his or her emotional balance.
“Even with kids with diagnoses who are getting multiple supports, medication, talk therapy ...,” she said, “having that trusted adult makes a difference.”
EYE TO EYE
Recently, Black addressed an audience of parents at Plattsburgh High School.
Her talk? “Not My Kid.”
That’s often a parent’s belief, she said.
“Not my kid — they’d never take their own life,” she said.
Instead, moms and dads need to think from the perspective of protecting their children.
“Each and every one of us could prevent suicide,” Allen said. “Open a conversation.”
Anyone can take suicide-prevention training, she said, noting a program called SafeTalk.
“We encourage regular people to go,” Allen said.
It’s important, she added, that everyone understands that it’s OK to talk about mental health.
“So that we’re all helpers.”
“Learn what to say, learn how to say it,” Black said, referring to parents, teachers, coaches, bus drivers, school custodial staff ...
“Learn it’s important to take the 30 seconds with a young person, meet them eye to eye and let them know you’re concerned.”
Someone else’s suicide can trigger others, experts say.
It can happen after celebrities end their own lives, for example, suicides spiked after the deaths of actor Robin Williams and musician Kurt Cobain.
And it’s a very real concern in schools after a student has died by his own hand.
That’s why district policies include such approaches as not allowing friends to decorate the person’s locker or do other things that might, in the mind of a student at risk, glamorize the death.
“We have to think from the perspective of, ‘I feel alone and I feel invisible,’” Black said, “think of students thinking, ‘If I die they will remember me.’
“It’s logical for a juvenile mind.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, these signs may indicate a depressed adolescent may be considering suicide:
• Withdrawal from friends and family members.
• Trouble in romantic relationships.
• Difficulty getting along with others.
• Changes in the quality of schoolwork or lower grades.
• Rebellious behaviors.
• Unusual gift-giving or giving away own possessions.
• Appearing bored or distracted.
• Writing or drawing pictures about death.
• Running away from home.
• Changes in eating habits.
• Dramatic personality changes.
• Changes in appearance (for the worse).
• Sleep disturbances.
• Drug or alcohol abuse.
• Talk of suicide, even in a joking way.
• Having a history of previous suicide attempts.
Don’t hesitate to talk to a teen who appears to be depressed, the Academy of Pediatrics says.
Here are some tips:
• Reassure them that they are loved and that you are there to help work out any problems.
• Be a good listener, don’t judge, don’t dismiss a teen’s concerns.
• It’s OK to directly ask if the teen has ever thought of killing him or herself.
• If you suspect a teen is suicidal, seek professional help immediately.
“Threats of suicide or preoccupation with suicide”, the academy says, “are a medical emergency and should never be ignored.”