With the recent spate of celebrity-related suicides — Alexander McQueen (a fashion designer), Andrew Koenig (from the TV series, Growing Pains), and now Michael Blosil, Marie Osmond’s 18-year-old son — it seems like a sad but appropriate time to weigh in on this tragic outcome of untreated (or under-treated) depression, which is the leading cause of suicide.
Alicia Sparks, blogging over at Celebrity Psychings, notes recommendations for the media when reporting on suicide, because suicide contagion is a real phenomenon. That is, there is a small but statistically significant increase in suicide deaths after a reported suicide makes the media rounds. Especially when the person who died by suicide is a celebrity.
While suicide feels like a very personal and intense situation that no other human being can understand, it is actually something that a great many of us have struggled with and indeed do understand. Suicide most often accompanies an untreated or under-treated mental health concern, most often depression. And it’s often accompanied by immediate alcohol or drug use, which makes the decision seem more rationale, but sadly, also more impulsive.
The cause of an individual suicide is invariably more complicated than a recent painful event such as the break-up of a relationship or the loss of a job. An individual suicide cannot be adequately explained as the understandable response to an individual’s stressful occupation, or an individual’s membership in a group encountering discrimination. Social conditions alone do not explain a suicide. People who appear to become suicidal in response to such events, or in response to a physical illness, generally have significant underlying mental problems, though they may be well-hidden.
Suicide remains the third-leading cause of death among older teenagers in the U.S. Young men are four times more at risk than young women.
Depression is the leading cause of suicide. Usually when people have made the decision to die by suicide, they are either struggling with depression that isn’t being treated, or with treatment that isn’t help them.
I think this is especially true of young adults, who, for many of them, are often feeling some of these kinds of intense emotions for the first time in their lives. Older teens and young adults will be experiencing their first relationship breakup, one that few of them are emotionally experienced or prepared to handle.
Perhaps one of the future solutions for combating suicide by older teens and young adults is through a class targeted at helping them better understand relationships and their emotional reactions. Or heck, even just a class about emotions. We teach kids so many useful skills in school, but we do little to prepare them emotionally, or with realistic, usable relationship skills.
There really should be an Emotions 101 or Relationships 101 course taught in sophomore year of high school that covers these topics. While I’m not a big fan of institutional teaching of these kinds of things, it’s clear that many (most?) parents never talk to their teens (and likely cannot talk to their teens because the teens don’t want to talk about it) about these kinds of topics.
And while I think that you see older teens and young adults eventually taking such a class in college, I’m afraid that for some of them, it’s far too late to do much good (and doesn’t help at all the folks who never go to college).
Depression to a teen or young adult may seem like a weird label to put on the feelings they’re experiencing. They may not recognize it as depression: “Hey, I just broke up with this girl — my first real, serious relationship — but I’ll be okay.” Indeed, I’m certain many teens bounce back from their first, serious relationship without any long-term emotional scratches or scars. But for some teens, it’s far more traumatic. They may never recover. And our current outreach just isn’t reaching them.
Teens, just like adults, often turn to alcohol or drugs to help cope with their emotions. Teens often don’t have a lot of reliable, well-nurtured coping skills to begin with, so alcohol or drugs are an easy answer to feeling upset. Combine a teen’s emotional turmoil with getting into drugs and/or alcohol, and you have a seriously potent combination. Again, in most teens, nothing really bad ever comes from their experimentation and use of these things. But in some, it turns their world inside out and upside down. They see no tomorrow, no future, no hope.
I don’t know much about the personal psychological histories of Alexander McQueen, Andrew Koenig or Michael Blosil. But from what I’ve read, it seems likely that they were battling demons related to either depression, alcohol or drugs, or combination of these, and just weren’t getting (and perhaps not even seeking) the help they needed. While such celebrity cases sadden me, they are a drop in the bucket compared to the over 4,000 teens and young adults who take their lives every year here in the U.S. (or the additional 26,000+ adults who do so).
Every single day, another 11 young adults will choose death by suicide.
What You Can Do To Help
It’s important to recognize the warning signs of a teen or young adult who may be thinking about suicide:
- Talking about suicide or death or “going away”
- Talking about feeling hopeless or guilty
- Pulling away from friends or family
- Losing the desire to take part in normal activities
- Having trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
- Exhibiting lots of self-destructive behavior (drinking alcohol, driving too fast)
- Giving away prized possessions or their stuff
- Big changes in their eating or sleeping habits
Experts recommend that, if you’re an adult in a teen’s or young adult’s life, to stay involved:
- Watch and listen for warning signs
- Keep lines of communication open and express your concern, support and love
- If your teen doesn’t want to talk, suggest a more neutral person such as a relative, clergy member, counselor or doctor
- Ask questions, even tough ones, such as if he or she has had thoughts of suicide
- Get psychological help if your child is thinking about suicide
- If your teen is in a crisis situation, your emergency room can conduct an evaluation and refer you to resources
- Make sure you keep an appointment with a mental health professional — even if your teen says he or she is feeling better
If you feel like you may be suicidal, there is also a resource called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline which you can call, anytime day or night at their toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK (273-8255). Or if you prefer online, read this first.
These kinds of resources can help. But the real long-term help is in changing the conversation by finding a way to help get teens and young adults the resources they need to better cope with the changes in life — especially surrounding their emotions. It’s possible that if we taught such emotional skills early on in their lives, they would be better equipped to handle the ups and downs of teenage and later life.