The Reality and Severity of Teen Depression and Suicide

Recently I was reading some articles about depression and suicide amongst teenagers. I was saddened to read of present statistics revealing suicide as the second leading cause of death of persons ages 10 through 24. According to a study done by the Jason Foundation, “More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.” [1]

There are those who will snidely ask, “What do young people have to be depressed about?” The world has changed a lot since the 1980’s and early 90’s (when I was a teenager), just as much had changed then as compared to the generation(s) before mine. There have been significant paradigm shifts attacking the very foundations of truth, family, morality, etc. These shifts have created a lot of unrest and uncertainty. As technology has increased, making the world seemingly smaller, many young people are also feeling more isolated. Added to this is the problem of “cyber bullying.”

Since the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, there has been a rise in shootings in schools, churches, and public venues. Then later, after the Twin Towers catastrophe (what is referred to as “9/11”) in 2001, there has been a heightened concern of bombings and terrorism. The uneasiness many youth feel is warranted.

Our educational system insists on teaching evolution (despite the fact science does not support this), denying there is a God, and essentially teaching we are all but cosmic accidents. All the while we are told that we matter. Adding to their (teenagers) confusion is the plurality of contradictory religions and ideologies, as well as the relativizing truth (i.e., placing feelings and emotions over logic and facts; “What is true for one might not be true for another”), but life does not work this way. What a disservice to our young people!

Many homes are no better, as many children are raised in single parent homes, or with parents (or boy/girl-friends) who are abusive (verbally, psychologically, physically, and/or sexually). Many youth are traumatized by the divorce of their parents or the loss of loved ones. Still, many children are then harassed, bullied, or isolated at their schools. Many are ridiculed—even ostracized—by students and teachers, alike, for their faith (if they have such). Added to this are the temptations of peer pressure, sex (of various kinds), alcohol, drugs, etc.

Sometimes adults minimize the stress young people are experiencing, but many of these things mentioned are major stressors even for adults, let alone young people who are still in developmental stages of life and trying to begin to figure life out! Such pressure can lead to depression. If depression is not dealt with it can lead to suicide. According to the study mentioned earlier, done by the Jason Foundation, each day in America alone 3,069 high school aged persons attempt suicide (this amounts to 1,120,185 persons per year)! These numbers do not include middle school aged persons.

There is not a single element to blame for suicide, but by and large depression is a major factor. Jason D. Thomson notes some of the common variables that contribute to the rise of depression and suicide amongst teens: “These precursors include drug and alcohol use, broken homes, economic status, race, suicidal ideation, poor self-esteem, distress, poor coping mechanisms, sexual orientation, victimization, as well as a lack of social connection and support.” [2]

Later Thomson notes one study had found “Among teens, approximately 9 in 10 teens who are suicidal display clues or warning signs to others.” [3]

Katherine Murphy gives a list of red flags to watch for: “Expressions of hopelessness or sadness, slipping school work, loss of interest in sports or other activities, weight change, and sleep disturbances (insomnia or sleeping too much) are the most common warning signs.” Murphy then adds, “Pay attention also to less clear-cut signs of depression. These include somatic complaints (such as abdominal pain or headaches), preoccupation with death (such as always dressing in black and writing about nihilistic themes), running away, truancy, sudden rages or social withdrawal.” [4]

Jason Thomson notes that there is an increased risk of suicide whenever a teen feels frustrated, helpless, and hopeless in their ability to problem solve. He gives a similar list of warning signs to that of Murphy’s, but he observes, “Depression can distort an individual’s reality and the individual then fixates on their shortcomings, failures, and disappointments.”

While the outlook initially appears bleak, there is hope in helping teens get through their depression and overcoming thoughts of suicide. In their research on teen suicide in Canada, Barbara L. Paulson and Robin D. Everall found that three factors appear to be of immense help to teens. First, the development of self-efficacy and personal worth through increased coping and problem-solving skills. Second, an increase in social support and having someone they can confide in and who will genuinely listen. And finally, feeling accepted regardless of their difficulties. The writers note that educators have a tremendous impact, for better or for worse, on teens’ psychological functioning regardless of the difficult situations they are going through. [5]

How can we begin to help our troubled youth? I used to be a youth pastor, and I can attest to the fact times have changed. Ours was not a big group, but I was surprised how many had lost friends due to senseless violence. Some students were quite concerned about potential bombings where their parents worked or shootings at their schools. Others essentially had free reign as to their wanderings, having no real stability at home.

Young people need to know they are loved and their lives have genuine significance. One of the great problems with our secular humanistic education system is its hostility toward any references to God and creation, and its firm grip on the theory of evolution (again, true science does not support this theory). The importance of this matter has to do with human significance. If, indeed, secular humanism were true, if people were but by products of this process called evolution, then we would not have real significance. Regardless what our institutions tell us. Secular humanism basically teaches humans are so great, yet here today and gone tomorrow. Honestly, where is there any significance in this?

But the Bible tells us something wonderfully different about people:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:27 (ESV)

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. ~ Psalm 139:13-14

Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. ~ Jeremiah 1:4-5

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us. ~ Acts 17:26-27

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. ~ Romans 5:8

Our children and teenagers have significance because they were intentionally designed, “woven,” and are loved by a Creator who has made each of us in His image. Young people are not cosmic accidents or “mistakes” of their parents. Young people need to know this.

We must also help our youth through their coping and problem-solving skills. Our society is doing a grave disservice to young people by catering to their every whim and feeling. The theologian Martin Luther said it well: “Feelings come and feelings go, and feelings are deceiving.” Feelings are not one’s identity. Who among us knew and understood who we were during our elementary years? One of the areas that makes our teenage years difficult is the process of beginning to understand ourselves. Truly, for many this is a life long journey. How ridiculous that parents and teachers are pushing agendas as if young people “know” who they are based on feelings. Let time and growth develop them. However, irreparable damage can be done if we try to rush the process and “put the cart before the horse.”

Next, we need to listen. The skill of listening is underdeveloped in many of us. Ours is a society that likes to talk, to lecture, to spout out opinions—even if void of logic or sense. Sometimes, especially when youth are needing a “safe place” to confide, we need the skill to listen and the wisdom to know when—and when not—to speak. This can be extremely difficult if you are a teacher or caregiver, because such persons desire to teach and fix. However, there are times our best teaching and fixing come when we are simply listening and being present for another.

Finally, young people need to know they are accepted, valued, and loved. This does not mean we must condone their behavior, views, or beliefs. However, they need to know that they are not castaways or disposable. They need to know their lives are of value and have purpose, that they are worth protecting and investing our lives into.

Sadly, doing these things will not end the tragic reality of depression and suicide of children and teenagers. However, if we can improve on helping young people to feel loved, accepted, and of significance, then hopefully we can see the numbers of the statistics of youth suicides drastically decrease.

Notes:

[1] Youth Suicide Statistics – Parent Resource Program. (2017). Retrieved from http://prp.jasonfoundation.com/facts/youth-suicide-statistics/

[2] Thomson, J. D. (2018). Discussion Around Depression and Suicide in Teens Today. Vanguard Practices from Practitioners, winter/spring special edition, 37-42.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Murphy, K. (2005). What Can You Do to Prevent Teen Suicide? Nursing, 35, 43-45.

[5] Paulson, B. L., & Everall, R. D. (2001). The Teen Suicide Research Project. The Alberta Journal of Educational Research. 1, 91-94.

Using Loneliness to Your Advantage (Part 2)

One of the reasons loneliness is so difficult is because we were created for community.

The Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” ~ Genesis 2:18

A helper, companion, and friend. The couple would then have offspring, not only for reproduction but also to create family. Families would become tribes, etc.

However, we know that not everyone is equal in families or societies, regardless how much people say they want “equality.” Even these persons and groups shun and dislike certain persons, whether it’s because of difference of religious or political views, social and economical class, styles or culture, the way persons look, etc. Thus, not everyone has friends or family to hang out with.

With all this said, there are many who do not have family or friends to be with during the holidays. There are others who do, but who feel so disconnected from those around them. Understand, loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. Being alone is simply not having people around. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a sense or feeling of being disconnected, rejected, unloved, undesired, unwanted, and/or ostracized by others. 

Strangely, anyone can be susceptible to feelings of loneliness, whether it is one who is considered the “dreg” of society or the beloved captain of a football team. Regardless, the feelings of loneliness are very real and can be destructive if not kept in check.

Another way to use loneliness to your own advantage is to use it to consider who you are and what you desire to be. I do not mean what psychologists call “visualization” (i.e., if you want to be a rockstar, then picture yourself up on stage, etc.). Rather, who are you as a person? What is your temperament? What are your strengths, weaknesses, skills, and passions? What kind of person do you want to be (e.g., kind, compassionate, mean, or obstinate)? What do you want to accomplish or be remembered for?

Times of loneliness can also be times to consider the deeper issues of life: What is truth? Is there a God? What is justice? Does life have meaning? What happens when we die? Too often we can be influenced by the media, teachers, preachers, gurus, emotions, etc. However, it requires times of solitude to genuinely reflect on these issues. These times of pondering can also aid in observing contradictions and logical fallacies. For example, when corrupt politicians try to lecture society on morality and ethics; when university professors deny absolutes, then decry “injustice”; when preachers talk about following God, but then deny His Word; etc.

Most of us will experience rejection of some form, as well as seasons of loneliness. During these times decisions will be made. Will we allow these trials/fires to consume or purify? Will be become bitter or better? Will we permit the experiences to transform us or the opinions of others to conform us?

Loneliness is painful—at times, emotionally excruciating. But it can be a beneficial discipline—even a healthy forging, if we will endure it. If you are presently going through the fires, truly I know it is difficult, and it is years later that I have come to appreciate the value of loneliness. 

Be still, and know that I am God. ~ Psalm 46:10

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. ~ 1 Kings 19:11-12

Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” ~ 1 Corinthians 15:33

Using Loneliness to Your Advantage (Part 1)

Loneliness is a painful experience. It can be emotionally crippling. However, loneliness can be used for one’s advantage and betterment. Mind you, I am not going to lie to you, loneliness will continue to be painful at times. Nevertheless, it does not need to destroy a person.

When I became a Christian in my teens, nearly thirty years ago, I lost nearly all my friends. I was passionate about Jesus and the Bible. Strangely, this does not necessarily endear a person to others in churches, let alone non-church goers. In any case, there were many, many weekends I spent at home with nowhere in particular to go. No phone calls from friends asking if I wanted to go to the movies or out to eat. I admit, there were times this was extremely difficult.

There are a few benefits I received from these experiences. 

First, spiritual development. Augustine wrote in his Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they find their solace in Thee.” Blaise Pascal noted, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.”

This world always has an abundance of activities to distract us from God and thoughts of Him. This technological age has only multiplied the distractions. Sometimes, if we will allow it, loneliness can remind us that there is more to life than mere continuous empty pleasures and distractions; and that there is a God who is knowable, if we will but approach Him on His terms and stop being so distracted.

I hated school when I was younger, and I was not much of a reader. Yet, being by myself a lot, I was able to have a lot of time to read the Bible. I got tired of watching television all the time, so I began reading. Strangely, I grew to love reading. Although I was a high school dropout, all my reading would later help me tremendously when I would earn my GED, then enroll in college. I graduated with honors.

Use loneliness to draw near unto God, and to build a solid foundation for your life (see Matthew 7:24-29). Loneliness will still be painful, but it will serve a greater purpose.

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. ~ James 4:8

You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. ~ Jeremiah 29:13