By Vicki Spriggs
Chief Executive Officer of Texas CASA
Following the highly publicized suicide of a young teen at a facility in San Antonio where many children in state care reside, our office has been discussing the high prevalence of suicidal ideation in young people. As part of these discussions, we learned that in 2017 in Texas:
- 34 percent of high schoolers reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row,
- 17 percent seriously considered attempting suicide,
- 14 percent made a plan about how they would attempt suicide, and
- 12 percent – that’s one in eight – attempted suicide.
Our teens are crying out for help at a rate that we can no longer ignore.
Most of you know that the teenage years are a critical turning point in young people’s lives – a whirlwind of physical, mental, social and emotional maturing and development. Even when teens grow up safe, secure, stable, connected and loved, it’s all just hard sometimes. As the data shows, it can all take a much bigger toll on their mental health than we realize.
Teens are subject to incredibly high expectations, especially today. They’re told they need to do well in school, balance their social lives and extracurriculars, avoid succumbing to peer pressure, have a plan for their career, get into a good college, do and be everything. If this weren’t enough, the ever-growing world of social media brings with it bullying, privacy and self-esteem issues that many of us can’t even begin to fully wrap our minds around.
When we dive deeper, the data is even more harrowing, showing that certain groups of young people are at an especially high risk of suicidal ideation:
- LGBTQ youth, especially transgender youth: 39% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. More than half of transgender and non-binary youth have seriously considered suicide.
- Youth who identify as American Indian/Alaska Native: Rates vary among individual tribes, but an estimated 14-27% of AI/IN adolescents have attempted suicide.
- Youth involved in the juvenile justice system: Suicide among these youth occurs at a rate of about four times greater than the general population.
- Youth who have experienced trauma: Adverse childhood experiences play a major role in increasing the risk of suicide attempts. One study found that two-thirds of suicide attempts could be attributable to abusive or traumatic childhood experiences.
- Youth in foster care: A 2006 study found that adolescents who had been in foster care were two-and-a-half times more likely to consider suicide, and four times more likely to have attempted suicide, than their peers.
We owe it to the children we serve to address this crisis head-on. Below are some ideas for how to do so, both in our advocacy work and in our everyday lives.
Listen, respect and empathize. When any child or youth opens up to you about an issue, big or small, listen to them, empathize and offer advice as appropriate without minimizing their feelings. You never know if a young person might be struggling more deeply, and your compassion could help more than you realize.
Be aware of the warning signs of suicide. There is no one cause of suicidal ideation, but there are warning signs of suicide that a person may exhibit. Learn about the warning signs, as well as risk factors and protective factors.
Know how to talk productively and thoughtfully with someone who may be suicidal. People considering suicide are in an incredibly vulnerable state, and even if you approach a conversation with the best of intentions, you can do more harm than good if you’re not careful. Prevent this with preparation. Educate yourself on the five action steps for communicating with someone who may be suicidal.
Share prevention hotlines widely.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741-741
- The Trevor Project (LGBTQ): 1-866-488-7368
- Trans Lifeline (Transgender): 1-877-565-8860
Continue to advocate for systemic change. We know that this crisis is far bigger than any of us, and there are systems-wide issues that come into play. We must continue to advocate for better mental health services and supports in our communities, our schools, our juvenile facilities and so on.
Lastly, remember that suicide isn’t just a young person issue, it’s not just a foster care issue, it’s an everyone issue. Mental illness can affect anyone and everyone – regardless of their circumstances, means, histories, ages and identities. Suicide in the US is on the rise for people of all ages. Check in with those important to you, even if they seem fine, and make sure they know they’re important to you – because the reality is that so many people, children and adults alike, still feel as though they must suffer in silence. Talk regularly and openly about mental health and its importance. If you have personal experience dealing with mental health issues, share as it feels appropriate.
If we are vigilant, we can prevent suicides and make a difference, one person at a time. Thank you for all that you do. Take good care of yourselves and each other.