Adolescence is a tumultuous time—so many moods and emotions, so much Sturm und Drang. It's not unusual for teens to feel down, but prolonged depression is a serious problem that can't be ignored. About one in 10 adolescents suffer from the disorder by age 18, which can be so severe that they consider the unthinkable—ending their lives.
Each year approximately 4,600 youths between the ages of 10 and 24 commit suicide, while about 157,000 more are treated in ERs for self-inflicted injuries. And a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that rates are on the rise. "This recent increase has many causes," says Ann Haas, Ph.D., senior director of education and prevention at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "At the root of most suicidal behavior among youth are unrecognized or untreated depression, anxiety, and alcohol or drug abuse. These problems may be triggered or exacerbated by pressure at home and at school to succeed, and by peer bullying. And parents often miss the signs."
But the reassuring fact is, prevention also begins with parental knowledge and support.
Each year approximately 4,600 youths between the ages of 10 and 24 commit suicide, while about 157,000 more are treated in ERs for self-inflicted injuries. And a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that rates are on the rise. "This recent increase has many causes," says Ann Haas, Ph.D., senior director of education and prevention at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "At the root of most suicidal behavior among youth are unrecognized or untreated depression , anxiety, and alcohol or drug abuse. These problems may be triggered or exacerbated by pressure at home and at school to succeed, and by peer bullying. And parents often miss the signs."
But the reassuring fact is, prevention also begins with parental knowledge and support.
A Second Chance at Life
The barrel of the shotgun tasted terrible. But that didn't stop Luke Beischel from putting it in his mouth. A few days earlier the troubled 15-year-old from a Cincinnati suburb had decided to end his life. As planned, he had gone to school and rowing practice. Once back home he cleaned his room, wrote a brief suicide note and went online to look up brain anatomy—so he'd get the angle of the gun right. By then his parents and older sister had left the house to cheer on his younger brother at a soccer game. On a balmy September evening he sat alone in the backyard and tried to force himself to pull the trigger.
What had brought Luke to this heartbreaking moment? It was simply a bad grade. A happy, fun-loving kid, he was also a perfectionist and relentlessly self-critical. He'd always been a top student, but "once I started to do poorly in Latin, it made me feel hopeless, like a total failure," says Luke, now 23. "Killing myself seemed the best solution."
For Luke, the first indications of trouble appeared in eighth grade, when he applied to an academically rigorous high school. "None of my friends were doing that, so they started taunting me, saying, 'You think you're too good for us,'" Luke recalls. Shunned by the group, he became deeply depressed. Luke agreed to see a school counselor after admitting to his mom, Kelly, that he was having dark thoughts. When the other kids found out he was seeing a therapist, however, he quit after one session, assuring his mom he was fine. His mood improved after enrolling at the new school, where he joined the cross-country and rowing teams and quickly made friends.
Then came a pop quiz in Latin at the start of his sophomore year in late August. Even though Luke didn't think he had to study over the summer, he was stunned when he failed. A couple of weeks later, he was already flunking the course. "The teacher told me he was willing to help, but I couldn't reach out because that would be perceived as being weak," says Luke. "The expectations at this place were to excel." He told absolutely no one how he despondent he felt.
With bad grades piling up, Luke slipped further into panic and depression. It didn't help that his sister Beth, then 18, and his brother Will, then 13, both seemed to thrive at school without even trying. Adding to Luke's pain was the fact that he was secretly struggling with his sexuality, wondering if he might be gay and what that would mean to his family, all devout Catholics. "I felt like an outcast and a pretender, like I didn't belong anywhere," he says. Luke began actively contemplating killing himself but continued to behave as if nothing was wrong. "Looking back, it was never obvious he was sad or depressed," says Beth. Even Kelsey Cornish, Luke's girlfriend at the time, had no idea. "He was the same, very happy-go-lucky guy," she says. "He was stressed about high school, but so was everyone else."
Kelly, 48, and her husband Joe, 49, who runs a construction firm, were also unaware of the extent of Luke's misery. "I'm a nurse, and I know the signs of depression," says Kelly, a professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where she teaches a course in pediatric nursing. "I sometimes worried that he was sleeping too much or was too irritable, but I thought he was just tired from sports practice." Still, she was concerned enough to take Luke to his pediatrician. "I made sure he told the doctor what happened in eighth grade. She asked Luke if he was having any suicidal feelings now," Kelly recalls. "He looked her in the eye and said no."
At the family's Labor Day gathering, Luke seemed fine. But a few nights later he found himself sitting in the yard, determined to end it all. He had gotten his shotgun—a present from an uncle who hunted—and sat there for 20 minutes, putting the barrel in his mouth and taking it out, over and over. "Then I called my dad, asking when my parents would be home. He told me soon and hung up," Luke says. As usual, the boy sounded so normal that Joe had no idea anything was wrong. "But my mom sensed something—I don't know how—and immediately called back. I told her I had a shotgun and she screamed." Kelly quickly regained her composure, speaking calmly to Luke and keeping him on the phone while Joe dialed 911. "It was the worst moment of my life," she says. "I could envision Luke and feel the metal on his teeth. It's unbearable to think of your child in that much pain. That memory will never go away."
But while he was still holding the shotgun, Luke had a revelation. "I was able to slow down and really think," he says. "My parents had always shown me nothing but love. They always asked me how my day was, even though I'd usually just say 'fine.' They were always home after work for family dinners, ready to listen to anything I had to say. I realized there was nothing I could do to disappoint my parents, because they loved me no matter what. Because of that, I was able to put down the gun and call them."
An ambulance rushed Luke to Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, where he spent five days in the psychiatric unit. There he discovered he had lots of companym—other kids, many struggling with academic pressures, who had also contemplated ending it all. "It was like a revolving door for students at my school and other places like it," he says. After being discharged, Luke went into intensive therapy. "To our surprise, he wanted to return to the same high school, but he decided to drop Latin, which was fine with us," says Kelly. She and Joe kept a close and constant vigil, refusing to leave Luke alone for even a few minutes over the next nine months. "I didn't sleep well for a long time," says Beth. "I was always wondering, 'What if he's just putting on a happy face? What if he tries again?'"
The Beischels' fears eased a bit after Luke's therapist suggested—and he agreed—to make a pact with his family to talk about his feelings before they got out of hand. At Kelly's urging, he also began sharing his story with concerned parents at Surviving the Teens, a local suicide prevention program. As his mood stabilized and Luke began to feel less isolated, life seemed to hold promise once again. He enrolled at Xavier University, where he became campus president of Active Minds, a national student mental health organization. By then he was much more open with his family about everything—including his homosexuality. "All those things—including my parents' acceptance of my being gay—have been very healing for me," he says.
Now a production assistant for Bounce AEG, an events production company based in Los Angeles, Luke still wrestles with his demons. "I worry sometimes about slipping back," he says. But he continues to make good on his promise to keep the vital lines of communication open. "There have been a few times I've had passing thoughts about suicide. But they've just been little alerts that I need to evaluate what's happening in my life," he says. "Usually the answer is that I should ease up and take a few things off my plate. I can now recognize how to turn things around—and keep moving forward."
Is Suicide Contagious?
It can be, according to scientists. A study by Stockholm and Oxford Universities found that people with relatives who had taken their own life are 8.3 to 9.1 times more likely to do the same; for men who knew work colleagues who killed themselves, the figure was 3.5 times. As for teens, research shows that even minor exposure to suicide more than doubles the risk of what experts call "suicide contagion"—that is, copycat acts—among 12- to 17-year-olds regardless of whether they personally knew the student who died. This is especially true if they've watched news reports sensationalizing the event, or seen a memorial service or website postings that idealize the deceased or attribute the suicide to school pressure or a romantic breakup.
At this age, "kids tend to identify with their peers and might start to view suicide as a solution for ending their own pain," says Madelyn Gould, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, adding that teens who suffer from substance abuse, depression or severe anxiety are at much greater risk. Of course, not every child is susceptible. "If a kid is relatively healthy and grounded, he'll be upset by a suicide, but not to the point of following suit," says Gould. Even so, parents shouldn't avoid the subject. An ongoing dialogue with your teen is one of the best ways to help him cope.
Parent Prevention Plan
Don't dismiss depression as a phase. About 11% of adolescents suffer from the disorder by age 18, which can sometimes lead to suicide. Watch out for these symptoms: (1) acting more irritable or angry than usual, (2) dramatic change in appetite or weight, (3) trouble sleeping or oversleeping, (4) restlessness, (5) feeling worthless, (6) inability to concentrate, (7) alcohol or substance abuse, (8) aggressive behavior and (9) talking about wanting to end it all. If your teen experiences at least five for at least two weeks, get help immediately.
Watch out for bullying. Whether it's at school or online, verbal or physical, bullying takes a great toll on victims, who are two to nine times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, according to a review by Yale University.
Get your teen to talk. If a suicide occurs in your community, don't allow your child to brood alone in her room. "When crisis strikes, teens need the empathetic ear of an adult," says Haas. So keep the door open and tell her you've noticed she's not herself and want to help. Don't be insulted if your child won't open up. "Kids often don't want to have to deal with their parents' distress in addition to their own," says Haas. They might also resist talking to a counselor at school, where other kids might find out. Ask your pediatrician to recommend a private therapist.
Say "I love you." They may push you away, but teens still need to know they can count on you. That's what saved Luke. "Don't assume your kids are aware that you love them unconditionally," says Kelly. "Show it. They may be porcupines, but hug them anyway."
Where to Turn
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential counseling and support 24/7, as well as referrals to mental health services, at 800-273-TALK and suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has information on risk factors and warning signs, plus links to other resources, at afsp.org. A related website, MoreThanSad.org, features a video that teaches teens to recognize the signs of depression.
Healthy Minds is a public TV series that includes a two-part episode on depression and suicide, "Teens: Typical or Troubled?" View it at wliw.org/healthyminds.