Thirteen Reasons Why…Teen Suicides are on the Rise

The Netflix film Thirteen Reasons Why has created a buzz around the topic of teen suicide. While many experts in the field have denounced the film for various reasons, the one good thing that has resulted is the increased conversation on the topic.

I don’t plan to watch the series. I don’t need to. I lived my own real-life drama dealing with teen suicide. In November 2011, my oldest son, Tom, took his own life. I don’t need a film to paint a picture of the reasons teen suicides occur, or the devastation that it brings. I know how that story ends. And I continue to live that drama every day…that happens when you bury a child.

In the wake of Tom’s death, we formed a non-profit organization to stop teen suicides. Sadly, suicide continues to be the second leading cause of death for those 15-24 years of age, and recent trends lead me to believe its on its way to the number one spot.

To save you the time you’d spend watching the series, I’ve listed 13 reasons why I believe suicides are increasing, and what we can do to solve those problems. While these are not simple problems with simple solutions, with education and combined effort we will reduce suicides.

1. Stigma – The stigma that society casts on those with mental health challenges keeps teens (and adults) from seeking the help they need. Until we address the stigma, it will be difficult for individuals to self-report and seek services when they are depressed or suicidal.

2. Infrequent Communications – Often, suicide awareness and prevention is addressed in schools just one week or month each year. Would we change our eating habits if a certain restaurant advertised just one time each year? Suicide awareness and prevention needs to be a regular topic in our schools.

3. Lack of routine screening – We lack routine screening of teens for mental wellness. Just as schools require an annual physical before participating in sports, regular mental wellness screening would provide opportunities to identify depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses.

4. Delayed identification and treatment – Just like a physical illness, the sooner an individual with mental illness is provided professional help, the better the prospects for recovery. Improved screening of and treatment for mental health challenges will reduce depression and suicides.

5. Ignorance – Most individuals show signs or provide indications that they are severely depressed or suicidal. However, teens and their advocates are uninformed on those signs, and therefore miss key opportunities to intervene to stop a suicide. Education can change that.

6. Lack of reporting tools – Asking a teen to approach an adult about their friend’s depression or fear of suicide is a huge ask. Teens may wonder if they are exaggerating or misreading signs, or their friend may have begged them not to tell anyone. In this age of technology, we are woefully behind in our reporting tools (though this is an area that the Foundation and I have devoted significant focus and attention recently, and we hope to roll-out an awesome reporting tool soon).

7. Childhood trauma – Many instances of depression have their roots in childhood trauma (such as physical, sexual, or verbal abuse). Our inability to stop these traumas, or to provide help to those who have experienced childhood trauma, leads to lifelong pain and illness, including depression and suicide. Even absent suicide, the mental and physical drain of childhood trauma increases the risk of early death by 80 percent.

8. Parents – While we, as parents, would do anything in our power to help our children, we are at the bottom of the list as far as resources our teens will seek for advice or aid. Teens tell me they are reluctant to tell their parents about their problems because they fear their parents will overreact, or dismiss the concern, or smother them constantly. Regular, open, nonjudgmental, and rational conversations on the topic of depression and suicide will aid our kids in being more likely to reach out to us in times of need.

9. Adult focus – Many well-meaning agencies and organizations bring their adult-based perspectives to the fight against teen suicide. With teens as our target audience, we need to include teens in our efforts to ensure our efforts are in a form that teens will absorb. For example, our Teen Advisory Board has initiated peer presentations in which the teens present to their peers on the topic of teen depression and suicide. In this way, the message reaches teens through their peers, and in a manner to which they are accustomed and in a language they speak.

10. We’re all different – Each of us is different, and each exhibits our mental health status in different ways. A smile, or an “I’m fine” in response to a question about one’s wellbeing often masks the true condition, just as it did for all those (including myself) who interacted with Tom in the days and weeks before he took his own life. There is no “one size fits all” and that complicates the diagnosis and solution.

11. Anxiety – Anxiety is an increasing threat to our childrens’ wellbeing. Consistent or excessive worry, physical problems with no physical cause, and problems sleeping are all indications of anxiety. Talk to your child if you believe they are anxious, and seek professional help if necessary.

12. Screen time – That ever-present smartphone in our kids’ hands is a source of significant stress. We can help by encouraging time away from the screen, and the reminder that our online personas and interactions don’t define who we are.

13. Environment – Our indoor, sedentary lifestyle has increased instances of depression across all age groups. Studies have found the most effective “prescriptions” for depression: exercise. Time with pets follows as a leading treatment for depression. Both outperform pharmaceuticals. (That’s not to discount the benefit of drugs for certain individuals in dealing with their mental challenges; but drugs should be on a continuum of potential remedies, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and not the first thing we reach for.)

With such an overwhelming list, what can you do to stop teen suicides? For that we turn to our tagline: Talk Listen ACT. TalkListenACT is our website (.org), Twitter handle, Facebook name and the refrain we use to aid teens and their advocates in their fight against suicide.

  • Talk – It starts with a conversation. Talk about depression, anxiety, and seeking help. Engage your teens in a conversation before a situation arises in which you are concerned about their safety. Let them know they can come to you at any time, with any problem, and you will responsibly talk with them to find solutions.
  • Listen – Listen (and watch) your teens. Are they withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy? Are they withdrawing socially? Are their grades slipping, or is school attendance dropping? Do they say things that indicate they may be suicidal? These are all indications of potential problems. And keep an eye out for your teen’s friends as well. As they say, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and you may be privy to conversations and behaviors that their parents aren’t.
  • ACT – ACT is an acronym for Acknowledge, Care, and Treatment. We tell teens and their advocates that its not their job to “fix” the teen who is hurting – that is overwhelming to an untrained professional. Instead, it’s our job to get them to professional help. It’s as simple as Acknowledging the issue, expressing that you Care, and taking them to Treatment (such as a school counselor)

You don’t need to tackle 13 issues to help bring an end to teen suicide. These three simple steps – Talk Listen ACT - will put you in position to make a real difference in the lives of our youth. 

Joe Karlin is a co-founder and the Executive Director of the Tom Karlin Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization devoted to ending teen suicide and bringing awareness to teen depression. More information is available at talklistenact.org.

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