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The Big Problem of Teen Suicide
Can It Be Solved with Home Remedies?
An article from David R. Smith at

Dynamic ImageBased on a recent study of 6,500 teenagers (and their parents), researchers found that almost 1-in-25 American teens have attempted suicide, though an even more massive 1-in-8 have considered it. The findings have researchers in agreement; the greatest season of suicide risk is adolescence.

But can the remedy for such a terrible problem be found at home?

Dealing with Death
I’ve written about the heartache of teenage suicide in previous articles and it's even the subject of our most recent Campus Ministry Corner article. It’s never easy to discuss an event that takes a young person’s life, but sadly, that’s the reality too many youth ministries and families face these days.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) puts it grimly; suicide is the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24. Almost 4,600 young people take their lives every year with one of three preferred methods: firearms (45%), suffocation (40%), or poison (8%). Boys are more “successful” at suicide than girls, largely because of the more severe means they use to take their lives; a whopping 81% of all teen suicides are by guys. But, girls are more likely to attempt suicide (and report it) than guys.

Making the matter worse is the fact that a full 55% of young people who had attempted or planned suicide had also received some sort of help beforehand! Dr. Brian Daly of Drexel University says, “We’re seeing some of these [suicidal] thoughts coming after the initiation of treatment which is most concerning.” This reality has led many professionals, including those at PBS, to ask tough questions about the current effectiveness of programs and clinical treatment available to those suffering with suicidal tendencies.

But questions lead to answers…regardless if we like them or not.

Fostering Failure
Nobody doubts the connection between poor mental health and suicide, especially in light of the findings that claim “almost all teens who thought about or attempted suicide had a mental disorder, including depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or problems with drug or alcohol abuse.”

But can the catch all of “mental disorder” adequately explain the current trends in teen suicide?

The list of possible suspects responsible for the rate of teen suicide is not a short one. In fact, here are just a few headlines taken from the past two weeks to give us an idea of the world in which kids are now living:

  • Almost one-third of junior high and senior high kids who are in a dating relationship report some kind of abuse. Furthermore, the study by the University of Georgia reports that “90% of those kids in violent relationships are both victims and perpetrators.”

  • Young girls continue to be obsessed with their image, and are tempted to take drastic actions to uphold an unrealistic expectation of appearance. When young ladies can’t meet those wholly unattainable goals, they turn to various methods of coping, like….

  • Binge drinking is now a common practice for 1-in-5 high school girls according to the CDC. (For a female, binge drinking is defined as consuming 4 or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion, usually 2-3 hours in length.)

Let’s toss in one more “possible” factor behind the high rates of teen suicide: parental suicide. This study from overseas claims that young people are at a greater risk to attempt suicide if a parent – especially if that parent is the mother – has already committed suicide. Researchers in Europe also discovered an increase in kids’ willingness to attempt suicide after a parent had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Regardless of the continent, when teenagers grow up in a world clouded by violence, abuse, alcohol, deeply depressed adults, and more, it’s little wonder why we see so many suicides and suicide attempts.

It’s almost as if their failure is being fostered.

Simple Solutions?
So, what are some possible solutions to this – dare I say – epidemic of teen suicide? Of course, there are the mainstays like education, screening, counseling, and medication, but what if there are additional ways to tackle the problem of teen suicide?

Though it’s only tied to suicide through mental health in general, a study by the Association of Psychological Science reports that “exercise has positive effects that go far beyond physical changes in teens.” The report discovered that young people who participated in team sports had higher self-esteem and a more positive self-image than those who didn’t. Furthermore, active students were less likely to engage in negative behaviors, including social withdrawal and anxiety, mischief, and aggression.

Beyond exercise, a gripping article in the New York Times makes the suggestion that teenage suicide might be curtailed by giving kids more responsibility. The idea follows that if young people know they are needed by those around them – for instance, taking care of a sibling or a grandparent – they may be less likely to try ending their lives.

As simple as it sounds, it’s also an idea that’s supported by the CDC which claims, “Connectedness is a common thread that weaves together many of the influences of suicidal behavior and has direct relevance for prevention.” There have been studies – like this limited one – that reinforce the idea that family involvement lowers these kinds of serious risks.

Now, in NO way am I suggesting that we toss out our teens’ supply of Zoloft, Prozac, or Abilify; I don’t have that good a lawyer! But what if committed adults can tackle the big problem of teen suicide before it runs its awful course? Here are a few simple ideas based on the research we’ve just covered:

  1. Have ongoing conversations about the topic of teen suicide. Like so many other life-changing issues, suicide is not one of those topics you can address once and be done with. Suicide may not ever cross the mind of a teenager who’s dating a cheerleader in June, but happens when they break up in July? You won’t know unless you’re talking to them about it. There’s no need to pressure teens or make them feel uncomfortable; just ask a few simple, diagnostic questions on a regular basis.

      How are you feeling?
      What is your greatest source of joy, and why?
      What is one challenge you’re facing right now?
      If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?

    You don’t have to ask “Are you thinking about jumping off a bridge?” to know if your teenager is at risk; just toss a few non-threatening questions their way to get them talking about their life.

  2. Share some responsibilities. This goes back to the theory mentioned above…and one that I saw play out in years of youth ministry. If you give a teenager a significant role to play, they usually do it well. So, dole out a few “whine-inducing, independence-producing” chores around the house and see what happens. Granted, you might not want to trust your absent-minded 15-year-old with the task of counting out Grandma’s pain meds, but why not make him/her responsible for dinner one night each week? What if they had to spend one hour each week with their younger sibling helping them out in some way? What might happen if they were asked to help you with some work you brought home from the office? I’m not suggesting dishwashing duty – though that’s not a bad place to start; make sure these responsibilities come with real meaning attached to them. Your teen will definitely find some self-worth in fulfilling these obligations and serving others.

  3. Use God’s Word to teach the importance of life and hope. This is a good place to begin and end. The Bible is filled with passages that inspire us to press on through difficult circumstances and trust that God still loves us and cares for us. With all that your teens face in their lives, make sure they get a hefty dose of these kinds of verses. If you need a little help, you might want to check out this great MOVIE CLIP DISCUSSION about finding hope in the midst of discouragement. And here is another great resource, taken from The Death of DJ AM, about our need for total transformation. Use the Bible to saturate your teenagers with the truth that our God is the Creator and Sustainer of life.

Without a doubt, teen suicide is a complex issue, but perhaps the solution for it is simpler than we think. Make every investment of time, energy, and love that you can so they know they are valued. That will usually head off the big problem of teenage suicide…plus a lot of smaller problems, too.

David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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Comments on this post

   Julaisy         3/24/2016 6:09:38 AM


   Joe Bigliogo         5/15/2014 11:26:40 AM

Very accurate data has been comprehensibly and scientifically studied and complied regarding suicide in North America since the early 1950s. These studies though detailed are concise. Among it's many findings you can find the following: 1) The suicide rate of teens aged 14 to 20 is less than half that of adults between the ages of 40 to 60. 2) Suicide among all demographics has been in steady decline since to half of what it was before 1994. I list just these two because they directly contradict the impression given by your post. It is not my intention to stir up debate but facts are facts. Suicide is simply NOT at epidemic levels as claimed by a growing number of jaundiced articles with an agenda of painting a pessimistic picture of today's youth culture. In the psychiatric community bullying is not even listed as a cause for teen suicide. The media tends to highlight cases of victims of bullying who commit suicide. Because of the emotionally charged nature of these tragedies there's a tendency for various organizations driven by bias to exaggerate or falsify data so as to manipulate public perception. Yet collected data tells us that bullying related suicides are comparatively rare and in cases where they are documented there is a failure to reveal that victims also suffered from other psychiatric conditions listed as clinically defined causes. Correlation is not causation and we need to be very careful about casually assigning cause and effect when compiling statistics. My attempt is not to down play the tragedy of suicide but to bring some objectivity and proportion into the discussion. It needs to be emphasized that suicide among young adults is currently at an all time low not seen since the early 60s. Furthermore the demographic most at risk for suicide is between ages 40 to 60. It's a shame none of this was mentioned. Instead you quote headlines and spin speculative and inaccurate "trends" that clearly contradict the available data. In an attempt to generate shock value and trepidation in your readers you have made a mockery of dispassionate and scholarly reporting.

   David R Smith         5/14/2014 1:27:11 PM

Joe, My response will be short and simple. We used extremely respectable studies in our article. (It doesn't get much more reputable than the CDC.) Furthermore, the article was about teenagers, not adults. Finally, and sadly, one can easily draw a straight line from bullying to depression to suicide.

   Joe Bigliogo         5/8/2014 11:20:57 PM

"The findings have researchers in agreement; the greatest season of suicide risk is adolescence." This statemnet is pure taurine excrement. Your stats are patently false and manipulative with the express intent to instigate shock and paranoia. A little research is all that is required to obtain correct data gathered scientifically by a comprehensive research organization in Canada for all of North America and for all the world. I worked at that organization for three years. 1) The highest suicide in North America is between the ages of 40 to 60 Teen suicide is less than half of that demographic. Suicide increases steadily from childhood and peaks at around 40 then drops off again after 60. 2) Suicide of all ages (teens included) is down by a substantial margin over the last 20 years. !994 signaled a gradual decline where suicide is about half the rate it was 20 years ago. The invention of the internet and it's use seems to correlate with this steady decline in suicide. 3) The two major causes for suicide are listed as clinical depression and heredity. Bullying (commonly assumed a major cause for suicide) is not even categorized as a cause for suicide. This article like many articles on this subject contains falsehoods that simply don't jive with available research and is irresponsibly advancing unnecessary panic, worry and false assertions about suicide, it's causes and treatment. Please get your facts straight and your data correct before you attempt to write a serious scholarly article on the subject of suicide.

   Mikayla Williamson         3/26/2013 6:36:12 PM

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   David R Smith         2/8/2013 10:41:31 AM

Heath, first let me express my gratitude to you for doing such important work in God's Kingdom. Alaska has to be a tough place to minister in, aside from the ones you mentioned below. As for a response to your question, I echo Jonathan's thoughts and will add just one quick idea to the discussion. Let's remember that the problem of suicide in the life of a teen (or anyone for that matter) isn't created in ONE moment. It's not like a kid gets ONE bad grade in biology class and decides to end his/her life. Likewise, it's not just ONE deriding remark from mom or dad that makes a kid suicidal. It's always a culmination of these factors (real or imagined) that lead to a kid attempting suicide. For this reason, I harp our ONGOING dialogue with kids about this issue. I sincerely hope this helps. David

   Jonathan McKee         2/7/2013 3:10:26 PM

Heath, I appreciate your concern in your comment below. Yes, a bunch of activities, even church attendance, is not going to cure suicide. And I don't think David was saying that at all in this article. I think what David did clearly communicate was three elements that would help: ongoing conversations, giving students a sense of purpose, and using the truth from God's word to help them see that these problems are temporary and there is greater meaning for us. So to answer your question, where you ask what it looks like to "make every investment of time, energy, and love that you can..." ... it's hard to answer that in the confines of a comment section, but here goes: The quick answer- Discipleship. That is adults (parents, coaches, youth workers) living life with kids, listening, laughing, crying... and then teaching by word and example the greater purpose and hope that God provides. That's the short answer. If you're curious what that looks like even more, check out my book CONNECT, which is all about how to do this, or read my numerous articles on this subject, because I write about this all the time (my blog, our free training tools, etc.). Feel free to drop me an email if you'd like to dialogue more about this. Hope that helps a small bit.

   Heath         2/5/2013 10:33:57 AM

David, I think you touch on some great points in this article, but there are a few major factors I believe you left out. I work in ministry in Alaska, where we have the highest suicide rates in the country in all age ranges (especially teenage...boys in particular). What I sense from your article is much of the same strategy that has been applied across this state for years: activity based solutions. Sports, chores, clubs, conversations ABOUT SUICIDE, etc. The problem is that all of these activities are addressing the symptoms not the source (which is why the kids who have already "received help" are still attempting/committing suicide). In my opinion, the biggest contributing factor is that 72% of kids in our country today do not have both biological parents at home...20 years ago it was 7%!!! Not only that, but 44% of kids today are born out of wedlock! (those numbers are even higher in some demographics) The breakdown/lack of family is huge in the development and adolescent stages, thus we are seeing kids with greater "mental" issues today than ever before. I would argue that the issue is deeper than that. I believe that the spiritual hollowness is the heart of the problems we are seeing. If it were as simple as "mental" (simple only in comparison to spiritual), then physical activity would have a greater impact. The reality is that the physical activity is a distraction that only last for a short time. Somehow physical attendance at church has been accepted as a sign of spiritual growth...which is foolish. To apply the same line of thinking to suicide; activities=effectiveness, is just as unrealistic. As I travel around this state working with youth, I see two constants: discouraged, lost kids, and overwhelming response to the hope and promises of Jesus. They are literally, as Jesus said, "hunger[ing] and thirst[ing] for righteousness"...they just don't know where to find it! I know that many of the issues in Alaska are different than the lower 48, but the promises of Jesus and the desperation of youth are the same. I could not agree more with your statement, "their failure is being fostered." Our society is pushing them to activities as solutions for their spiritual longings, whether it's sports, schools, jobs, or even youth groups. The idea of spiritual transformation and the renewing of the mind as Paul speaks of in Romans 12 is a lost thought because it is hard to teach, measure, and most of all, model. Instead we have settled for easier more temporary solutions, that we can monitor, measure, and advertise as success. I won't go into "church" practices, except to say that the majority of the kids we are talking about will never voluntarily set foot in a church to look for answers. It is no longer the place of refuge it once was in our culture. If we are not willing to "GO and make disciples" (emphasis added) we will continue to see these numbers climb. I do not pretend to have all the answers. My question for you and Jonathan is this: You say, "make every investment of time, energy, and love that you can..." What are you implying that looks like? And, How do we encourage and equip leaders/parents to do it in non-program (activity driven) formats outside of the church building? Thanks for all the resources you guys provide. Your brother in Christ, Heath

   Jim Petipas         1/28/2013 10:43:33 AM

Thank you David & Jonathan for writing and posting such a great article on such a tragic epidemic. I will pass this along to parents in my sphere in hopes of proactive and positive reactive response.


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