(RNS) — Suicidal thinking is becoming increasingly common among youth and young adults. Pandemic restrictions such as long-distance learning and activity restrictions, shuttering of businesses and overall isolation highlighted this need. Recent published studies completed in 2020 indicated a 31% increase in emergency room visits by youth 12-17 years old compared to the previous year, and a 25% increase in young adults contemplating suicide over a 30-day period at the height of the pandemic.
Our young people are dying because of myriad reasons. Whether it’s social issues, school issues or home issues, America’s youth are anxious, depressed and feeling hopeless. But they are also crying out for help!
One of life’s most frightening experiences is to sense danger, have a desire for safety, but not know what to do. And this is exactly what young people face who struggle with suicidal thoughts and ideations.
As a military chaplain for 30 years, I learned through realistic training to instinctively know what to do in a combat situation, so my responses were automatic. This was surprisingly self-evident the first time I was in actual combat. Effective and well-rehearsed training saved many soldiers’ lives.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. And there is no better time for parents, youth leaders, community leaders and clergy to take the step to be trained in suicide prevention measures.
Why is training important?
Parents and adult leaders often miss certain cues when it comes to suicidal thoughts and ideations because changes in their youth or young adults are often incremental over longer periods of time or are categorized as typical adolescent behaviors.
Behaviors such as moodiness, brooding, irritability, anger and defiance — though characteristic for some during adolescence — when coupled with more depressive signs such as isolating, withdrawing, sleeping and losing interest in things they once enjoyed, are important cues and red flags that your teen could be struggling with suicidal thoughts. It’s important for parents and leaders to not “normalize” these behaviors or brush them off as “typical teen angst.”
Other important red flags to pay attention to in a teen’s life are significant losses (like a romantic relationship or loss of a close friend), social status and struggles at school and bullying on social media.
When parents, leaders or peers see these cues it’s important to engage in open and compassionate conversation and not stigmatize the teen’s emotions, concerns or thoughts.
Peers may recognize these behavioral changes more easily and be in positions to ask about suicide more readily than adults. Even so, youth peers, like adults, are frightened by both the thought of suicide and their lack of knowledge of what to do about it. Both need training to recognize indicators of suicidal thinking and how to respond to help save a life.
I believe most people truly want to help those who suffer with suicidal thoughts and ideations, but it’s also a topic few want to talk about.
We don’t like to talk about something we truly don’t know or understand. Myths about suicide get in the way and hinder our ability to reach out. One myth is the belief that talking about suicide will result in increased suicidal thoughts and behaviors. This is not true. Suicide remains highly stigmatized in contemporary culture, and it is this stigma and shame that keeps us from talking about suicide and from allowing people to freely express their struggles with suicide ideation.
For various reasons, the stigma is even more prevalent in places where we are called to “love one another” — in churches and faith communities. Too often people of faith insist a good Christian, a practicing Jew or a faithful Muslim would never have such thoughts if they believe their faith.
Unfortunately, despair comes into the life of every human being at some time or another. Loss, pain and disappointment are more frequently recognized today as contributors to mental illnesses. But however suffering is categorized, all are a part of the human condition and may sometimes lead to suicidal thoughts.
One potential way around stigma is to frame suicide prevention for youth and adults from the perspective of help-seeking. Telling a trusted friend or counselor about one’s depression, anxiety and crisis provides opportunities for internal fears and pain to be expressed in a supportive context. The pressure of keeping this painful and sometimes shameful secret is reduced by the presence of a non-anxious caring helper. Theorists, clinicians and experienced helpers agree suicidal thinking intensifies when it is kept secret. It becomes an endless cycle of negative thought, which spirals over time into the belief suicide is the only logical option. This cycle can be broken by someone who can listen well and know what to do next.
So the question is, how does a helper become non-anxious? How does a helper remain present, supportive and caring? The answer is simple. Practice. Face-to-face skill-based training provides helpful steps for a conversation, includes saying the word “suicide” out loud and offers specific options for helpers on what to do next when the person admits to having suicidal thoughts.
Skill-based programs, like safeTALK and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) can build awareness that suicide may be a possibility and give confidence to ask and know what to do when the answer is “yes.” Other programs like LivingWorks Faith can help ministry leaders to consider other upstream suicide prevention and offer post-suicidal behavior care in ministry settings. These are the elements of life saving and life promotion.
Like CPR training, more people in our homes, workplaces, schools, communities and places of worship need to be trained to step into this intimidating and frightening space, ask the suicide question and connect calmly and compassionately with an individual to save their life.
Recently I was training in a church setting sponsored by my brother-in-law, who is a mega-church care pastor in an affluent suburb. A few months after attending the half-day training, he told me he could not believe how many times he had used the training in just a few short months. In fact, he had made six interventions that potentially saved lives! Before the training, he said he would not have asked anyone about suicidal thoughts or ideations. But after the training, when he did ask these questions, he was surprised how many people were seriously considering suicide. It was palpable for him to see how the intensity of people’s situations changed when they were given a chance to tell their story and collaborate in finding a way to keep themselves safe.
A missing element in youth suicide prevention is faith leaders who can partner with existing suicide prevention agencies to train teachers, parents and peers to seek help and to provide help. We must train those who are frequently approached by youth so our kids can be transparent and feel safe to share their stories.
Preventing youth suicide is a doable task! But we need reinforcement from faith communities. We need confident well-trained people in congregations who are willing to walk through the dark valleys of the shadow with their adolescent neighbors.
Let’s work together to save the lives of our youth.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text with an emotional support counselor with the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
(Glen Bloomstrom is the director of Faith Community Engagement at LivingWorks Education, an international suicide intervention training company and an adjunct professor for pastoral counseling at Bethlehem Seminary. He is also a member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Faith Communities Task Force. Glen served on active duty as a U.S. Army chaplain for 30 years, retiring at the rank of colonel. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)