The second week of September is National Suicide Prevention Week. In honor of this week, BGCA is updating the Suicide Prevention & Awareness Guide, which is full of helpful tips, information and resources for Clubs. Note that the Guide is currently in draft form. This post will be updated with the final Guide once it is released.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens and young adults, ages 10-24 in the United States, claiming the lives of over 7,126 young people annually. In the past 20 years, suicide rates for this age group have more than doubled.
Deaths from youth suicide is only part of the issue – suicide attempts and ideation are also major concerns. A nationwide survey of high school students found that, in the past 12 months, 22 percent of students seriously considered attempting suicide, 18 percent made a suicide plan, and 10 percent attempted suicide one or more times. Every year, approximately 224,341 youth and young adults are treated for self-inflicted injuries and attempted suicide.
Learn the Warning Signs
Childhood, especially the teen years, is a stressful time. It is filled with many changes including bodily changes, changes in thoughts, and changes in feelings. Strong feelings of stress, confusion, fear, doubt, and pressure to succeed may influence youths’ problem-solving and decision-making abilities. For some youth, these changes can be very unsettling when combined with other events such as changes in their family, changes in friendships, or difficulties in school. These problems may seem too hard or embarrassing to overcome and, for some, suicide may seem like a solution.
Suicidal behavior is complex because there is no single cause. More than half of the youth who died by suicide in the past year did not have a known mental health condition. Although it is not always possible to know when someone is thinking about suicide with absolute certainty, most young people display warning signs before attempting or dying by suicide. Club/Youth Center staff and peers are often in a position to recognize when help is needed. You may see and/or hear warning signs directly, learn about them secondhand, or see them online in social media. Warning signs can look like:
- Talking to others or posting on social media about:
- Suicide or wanting to die
- Saying people in their life would be better off without them
- Being in a great deal of emotional pain
- Suggesting that life is pointless and there are few reasons for living
- Saying goodbye to people
- Feeling hopeless, trapped, or like they are a burden to others
- Looking for ways to kill themselves such as:
- Gathering medications, sharp objects, firearms
- Searching online for ways to end their life
- Major changes in behavior such as:
- Giving away personal possessions
- Self-injury (e.g., cutting)
- Isolating and withdrawing from people or social activities
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Significant change in mood (appearing anxious, depressed, or irritable/aggression)
- Alcohol or drug use
- Loss of interest
- Major changes in thinking such as:
- Having negative thoughts about themselves and their future
- Thinking their situation is hopeless or will never get better
- Thinking or talking about feeling empty, alone, or “over it”
If you or someone you know exhibits any of these warning signs, seek help immediately. If at any point a young person shares that they have suicidal thoughts or intentions, your only priority is to keep them safe.
Preventing Youth Suicide
Suicide is preventable. By recognizing the warning signs, listening, talking and taking action, you could save a life. At Boys & Girls Clubs of America, we use the acronym “S3” as a way to communicate concerns we have for each other and define the steps to get help. That is see, say, support.
You spend hours with youth every day. You care about them. Now since we are aware of warning signs, we can stay alert. When interacting with youth, observe what they are doing and saying.
If you see the warning signs in a Club/Youth Center youth, you’ll want to talk directly to that youth. You might assume other staff will pick up on these signs, though sometimes you are the only one who sees these aspects of a youth’s life.
Before you start the conversations, here are some reminders. Take a deep breath, acknowledge your own discomfort, attempt to remain calm, and remember you’re here to provide support, not fix everything.
Here’s one suggestion to start the conversation: “I’ve noticed that lately you are “doing/saying X” (behavior or speech) and that seems different for you. I care about you and want to make sure you are okay. Can you tell me about how things are going right now?”
If you’ve noticed any of the warning signs previously discussed, directly ask: “Because I care about you, I need to ask you a question. Are you thinking about ending your life?” or “Have you been having suicidal thoughts?”
It can be challenging to ask such a direct question and may require practice. Practicing a few times before you talk to youth can be helpful. This discomfort can be worth it when it saves a life. If you’re asking direct questions to a youth who has been thinking about ending their life or suicide, it’s not shocking to them because it has been on their mind already. It’s often a relief for someone struggling with suicidal thoughts to have a caring adult who is willing to talk to them about their thoughts and feelings.
Our first priority as youth development professionals is to keep the youth safe – so ensure that you do not leave the youth alone while working to get them additional help.
When a young person acknowledges they are having suicidal thoughts, be present, validate their emotions, and listen. This could sound like acknowledging that they’re hurting, asking them questions about what is going on, and letting them know you, along with other adults in their lives, will be there to support them. As much as possible, let them share without interruption. Don’t argue with their feelings and thoughts and avoid offering solutions.
It can be especially encouraging for youth if the caring adult makes it clear that they care about the youth’s well-being and want to help them get the support they need. Let them know that getting support means you will have to let others know.
Once you’ve allowed the young person the time they need to process their feelings, the next step in the support phase is to ensure the youth person gets connected to the appropriate resources and following your organization’s suicide risk/crisis response protocol. You can learn more about what should be included in this protocol and see examples from Boys & Girls Clubs in the full Suicide Prevention and Awareness Guide.
Thank you to our partner Nationwide Children’s Hospital Center for Suicide Prevention and Research for providing the content for the Suicide Prevention and Awareness Guide and this post.