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.