If you, or someone you know, is in crisis, please call the National suicide prevention lifeline. It's a free 24-hour hotline at 1.800.273.TALK.
During the fall of 2021, the Radio 101 class surveyed over 1,600 students in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school district. In that survey, we asked students to anonymously share their experiences with suicide ideation and attempt. Almost 40% of the respondents said that they had thought about harming themselves or attempting suicide. We asked them to share their story. Some sent us a voicemail, but some felt more comfortable writing. These are just a few of the responses. We are not using their names to protect their identity.
“I've struggled for years with my mental health and while I've never attempted, I've had the thought and struggled with it. I have self-harmed, however. I'm about a month clean. Things are hard with my sexuality and gender and family. I can't come out because of safety reasons, and I've been in the closet for coming up on five years. My family hasn't always treated me the best and it's hard,” said one 14-year-old student.
"I was raped and I thought I would never be better, you know? Like I hated myself, my body, everyone literally. I couldn't trust any guy ever again. I didn't feel comfortable being alone with guys and stuff. I even attempted to take my life, but it took baby steps for me to feel better about myself. Until this day the assault still affects me but i have two of the best people i can count on and who make me feel better about everything and make me want to live.” another 14-year-old said.
“I was just down and out and scared of making people disappointed and I thought I wasn't really worth the air I was breathing, so I just did it.” said one 16-year-old student.
Radio 101 reporters Melvin Abuaku and Chase Orie reached out to Vice President of Research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Dr. Jill Harvaky-Friedman, to try and understand what drives a teenager to take their own life.
Chase Orie: One of the things we noticed because we did a survey is how many students have considered suicide. How does a teenager come up with this idea?
Dr. Harvaky-Friedman: So as we understand suicidal behavior, we know that there are connections between thinking about it, making [an] attempt, and dying. So we know a lot more about what leads someone to die by suicide, and we're learning about what leads someone to think about it. Often when somebody's thinking about it, they feel that there's no options for them. They might feel depressed, or they may be using substances — drugs, and alcohol; they may have anxiety, they may be having unusual thoughts that they can't make sense of. And so there's often a mental health component. And then, of course, for people who die by suicide, they have to have access to lethal means — things that they can actually kill themselves with. So we try to help people keep those away from people who are in distress so that they can get through the time when they're thinking about it without actually taking their life.
CO: Which teens are more at risk to go through with the suicide attempt?
Harvaky-Friedman: There's a good chance that they have a mental health condition that, by the way, can be treated, and they can get help for it. Often, they're keeping everything inside. And so they may be pulling back from friends and activities. So, that the places where they would get support, they're not engaging in, and so they are limiting the resources to help them feel better. We know that when people are at that point, they isolate, they withdraw. They may do reckless things. But we're still trying to figure out what takes someone who's thinking about it, to actually engage in the behavior. Their thinking is not as clear and flexible. And they don't see the options, and they think this is what is going to make them feel less pain.
CO: Can we talk about how, in your opinion, COVID-19 has changed the landscape of mental health and teen suicide?
Harvaky-Friedman: We have seen an increase in thinking about suicide and also seeking medical help for suicidal ideation. But fortunately, so far, we have not seen an increase in suicide rates. And I think that's because, from the very beginning of COVID-19, we all started talking about how this is impacting our mental health, that we need to take care of our mental health ... and we've been sharing ways to do that. So by doing that, I think we've helped people to get through those difficult moments. I also think that there are more people showing up in emergency rooms, because kids are with their parents, or their family more. They're also talking more about their thoughts and feelings, which is really helpful and important.
Melvin Abuaku: What are some warning signs and red flags that parents should be on the lookout for?
Harvaky-Friedman: if you notice a change, a change in mood, a change of behavior, or a change in what people are saying, it's important to pay attention to that. So for instance, what people say — they may talk about suicide, they might talk about taking their life — but they may be more subtle. They may say, "oh, next year, this won't matter" or "after the final, I won't have to worry about school anymore." They may give things away that are important to them. They may say that they were a burden. They say that they don't fit in anymore. So, they give these kinds of subtle clues. Now in behavior, particularly in teens, sometimes we'll see more reckless behavior — doing things that can get them into trouble or physically hurt. So, if you see your friend engaging in reckless behavior, using more drugs or alcohol, withdrawing from people or activities, isolating, and not joining in where they normally would, those can be signs that they're not feeling connected. And we know that feeling of connection is what keeps people going.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.