World Suicide Prevention Day

Suicide among teenagers: Don't be afraid to talk about it

Throughout the world, International Day for the Prevention of Suicide is observed. Dr. Shai Chen Gal, the chief psychologist of the Amal Group, explains the reasons for the worrying rise in suicide attempts among young people and provides advice for parents on how to try to address the issue.

Illustration (Photo: Shutterstock)

In recent years, we have seen a very troubling increase in youth suicide rates in Israel, with symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicide attempts. The alarming fact is that suicide is the second most common cause of death among adolescents.

Furthermore, a series of studies have shown that the age at which suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts occur has significantly decreased. While it used to begin around the age of 15, we now see thoughts and attempts among adolescents as young as 10-14.

The reasons for this are unfortunately numerous and varied. First and foremost is the COVID-19 crisis, during which many children were isolated from their peers and friends they had at school. We recognized during the pandemic that there would be severe difficulties to come. Even without this crisis, today's youth and children experience much more loneliness.

Another significant factor is the digital revolution. Adolescents spend hours on digital devices, in front of screens on Instagram, TikTok, and social networks. This has three prominent negative consequences. The first is a distorted body image. We know that there is a direct link between viewing beauty models and body image issues. Social media influencers often post flattering pictures of themselves, making it more challenging for adolescents, especially during puberty, to differentiate between reality and idealized images, leading them to emulate these models.

The second negative contribution of social media is the phenomenon of loneliness, which has become a societal epidemic, with high rates among adolescents and third graders. The third negative effect is a decline in social skills. Adolescents who spend hours in front of screens are not engaging in social interactions as they used to, which exacerbates their loneliness.

Today, we know that the ability to access treatment is problematic because of a shortage of professionals and long waiting times. This is not unique to our country. In the United States, for example, there is a shortage of 300,000 child and adolescent mental health professionals.

Before we discuss warning signs of suicide and suggest action steps, there are some central myths on the subject of suicide that need to be dispelled:

1. **Not talking about suicide directly.** On the contrary, it is essential to talk about it. People think that discussing suicide might put ideas into the minds of young individuals, but we know that questions can allow them to share and often save lives.

2. **Belief that suicide cannot be prevented.** This is not true. Proper treatment can often prevent suicide. Many times, effective parental intervention has prevented suicide.

3. **People who talk about it don't really mean it.** This myth is also incorrect. Those who express their thoughts about suicide are at high risk for self-harm.

4. **Only those from broken homes commit suicide.** Today, we know this is not true. There are many outstanding students, for example, who struggle to cope with failure and can harm themselves. Even a high socioeconomic status does not prevent suicide.

Since adolescence is a highly challenging period, young individuals face many crises. So, when do we know that distress becomes dangerous? What are the warning signs for suicide?

1. The youth experiences severe distress lasting more than two to three weeks. This should raise a red flag; it's not a temporary crisis but something more significant.

2. There is underlying depression. Clinical depression includes significant decreases in functioning, mood disturbances, a lack of enjoyment in activities, sleep disturbances (either excessive sleep or insomnia), changes in eating habits (overeating or loss of appetite), and a pessimistic outlook on the future. Often, it also manifests as behavioral issues like violence, isolation, or difficulties with social relationships.

3. School absenteeism. Recent research has shown that school absenteeism is a significant indicator of suicidal risk.

Additionally, some triggering events, like a breakup with a friend, parental divorce, a traumatic event, or online bullying or threats, can accelerate suicidal tendencies. In such cases, along with risk factors, they can lead to suicidal acts. So, what can be done to prevent this?

1. If you have concerns, do not hesitate to ask directly about it. Starting a conversation can save lives.

2. Talk with the youth and listen to them. Sometimes, they want someone to ask them. If parents feel uncomfortable, they can ask teachers, counselors, other family members, or close friends to engage in these conversations. Do not be afraid to talk to them, even if they are withdrawn.

3. When talking to the youth, provide them with coping strategies. Let them know they are not alone and that others have gone through similar experiences. Encourage activities like talking, engaging in sports, meeting friends, and more, as these can help them cope.

If there is a real risk of suicide, remember to:

1. Monitor them. Do not leave the young individual alone for an extended period and maintain continuous contact.

2. Remove any means they could use to harm themselves.**

3. Seek assistance from support lines and do not hesitate to ask for help.**

Remember that it is possible to prevent suicide and save lives.

**Dr. Shai Chen Gal is the lead psychologist of the "Amal" group.**

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