We’ve all seen it: The melancholy teen push to the brink, left without hope or help, who decides to take their own life in Act Two of some soap opera or straight-to-TV movie.
It’s upsetting, it’s dramatic, and unfortunately, it has transformed personal tragedy into a television cliche.
Our modern image of suicide has been thoroughly warped by the media with melodramatic music videos and newscasts that throw around phrases like “suicide epidemic” or “successful suicide attempt.” Because while the creators of this content may have had good intentions, supposedly moving re-enactments of self-harm often replicate the problems that they try to prevent as teens turn to them for a template for coping.
Moreover, the frequency of these depictions can often desensitize viewers to the actual problem, making them more likely to confuse the experience of a friend with a TV plot device. As the rate of teen suicide grows and this misinformation abounds, it’s particularly important that parents take the time to understand what suicide can look like from a teenage perspective and how they can broach the issue with their own children.
The Risks at Hand
One of the biggest misconceptions the media has spread about suicide relates to its causal connections. All too often in TV and movies, we see suicide in an oversimplified cause-effect relationship. Whether it’;s a dramatic instance of bullying or a sudden family death, characters are often pushed suddenly to take drastic action, causing confusion for the viewer about the difference between a cause and a risk factor.
Among the most important things to understand about suicide is its difficulty to understand. Suicidal thought and actions are psychologically complex and experiences vary drastically from individual to individual. It’s very rare that a single cause can be isolated as a driving force for suicidal behavior. More often, there are a variety of overlapping circumstances or risk factors that can contribute to a suicidal mindset, ranging from long-term low self-esteem to the sudden loss of a relationship.
With this in mind, it becomes important for a parent, friend, or peer to understand what risk factors exist and how to identify them in the life of a loved one. Here are a few more risk factors in addition to those listed above: mental illness, substance abuse, a history of self-injury or suicide attempts, prolonged periods of stress, access to firearms or other potentially lethal materials.
In addition to understand the risk factors, however, it is also crucial to be able to identify warning signs that a loved one may be experiencing suicidal thoughts. They can range from extremely obvious mentions of death, passing or suicide, to more subtle changes in behavior.
For example, some suicidal teens may begin to lose interest in activities and behaviors that used to be common. Others will begin displaying behaviors consistent with putting their affairs in order, saying goodbye to people, giving away possessions, etc. All of these behaviors, from the obvious to the slight, warrant both attention and action in order to intervene in what could develop into a dangerous situation.