Among the mental and emotional health issues affecting children and young adults, suicidal thoughts, impulses, behaviors, and attempts are debilitating and painful to cope with. When a life ends in suicide, families, friends, and loved ones are left devastated, mourning the person they love so dearly, grieving the immense loss, and questioning how they could have prevented it. We wonder if there was anything we could have done differently. We ask ourselves if there were warning signs we could have picked up on. While there is rarely only one specific reason why a person takes his or her life, there are several factors that can contribute to their suffering to such an extent that it leads to contemplating suicide. It can help families with young people currently struggling with suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues like depression and anxiety to understand some of these contributing factors.
Children, adolescents, and young adults are facing new challenges and pressures that no other generation before has had to face. One of these challenges is the increased pressure to get into schools and colleges with more competitive acceptance rates than ever before, to juggle the demands of school with those of standardized testing, and to bolster their resumes with more and more extracurriculars and leadership activities to impress admissions officers. Getting into school has become notoriously difficult. There is growing pressure to attend a top school and to perform at the top of the class. Parents are even competing to get their children into elite kindergarten classes. Children as young as elementary school-aged children are taking rigorous standardized tests, on top of their already intense workloads. Instructors are piling loads of homework assignments on students daily. Young people are expected to compete with their peers, often to satisfy their parents’ need for them to succeed. Parents are afraid their children will fail, at school and in life, so to assuage those fears, children are being forced to live up to exorbitant expectations when still at a very young age.
To keep up with these demands, young people are neglecting their mental, emotional, and physical well-being. They are losing sleep to get their work done. They are becoming sleep-deprived as a result, which contributes to their declining health. Their anxiety manifests as sleeping disorders, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They are no longer allowed just to play, explore, learn, and be free, to be young. They’re being taught at an early age how to operate in modern-day society, how to function in a workplace environment, how to follow instructions, and become obedient workers. When young people have no outlet for their stress and no way to express how much they’re struggling, the mounting pressure they face can lead to their contemplating suicide. They can feel as if they have no way out, no way to stop the constant workload from accumulating and overtaking their lives. Stress and overwhelm can be too much to bear. They might fear to let their parents down. They might be punished or abused for getting bad grades, for not living up to their parents’ expectations, for letting them down. Young people dealing with this kind of overwhelming pressure to do well in school can develop depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental health issues that are often accompanied by suicidal thoughts.
Many young people are not only dealing with rigorous schoolwork, but they’re also working to support themselves and help their families. The financial pressures of entering the workforce, especially while still in school, can be a lot to take on. The fear of running out of money, of not being able to support themselves, or of letting their families down, can create in young people tremendous stress, anxiety, and an increased chance of depression. When they feel it’s all too much to handle, sometimes suicide feels like the only option. Financial losses, instability, and fear can be driving factors behind our suicidal thoughts.
Frequently the stress young people feel is related not to finances or school but to the emotional pain they’re experiencing. Many of us experienced trauma as children, and we can continue to feel its effects long after the initial traumatic incident. If we experienced any kind of loss due to separation, divorce or death, any kind of abuse, harm or mistreatment, any sort of neglect or abandonment, we could be more at risk for depression and other mental illnesses. Trauma can be acutely frightening, destabilizing, and disempowering. When we’ve been traumatized, we can feel lost, disconnected from ourselves, empty and alone. We feel hopeless and defeated. We can be consumed by feelings of shame and guilt, primarily when we blame ourselves for the difficult things that have happened to us. We feel as though we can’t possibly release ourselves from the grips of our trauma, from our sadness and shame, so we convince ourselves that the only way to find release is to end our lives.
Sometimes our relationship to our trauma becomes so debilitating that it manifests as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We might have recurring flashbacks, nightmares, or hallucinations. Our trauma might take over our daily lives, causing us to be unable to eat, sleep, or function. We might have physical pain or develop chronic pain conditions related to our trauma. Young people dealing with PTSD can be at even more risk of committing suicide, especially when they haven’t received a diagnosis when they haven’t seen a medical professional. Because they don’t know what is causing their severe mental, emotional, and physical pain, and because they often don’t tell the adults in their lives, their PTSD goes undiagnosed, untreated, and misunderstood. Being in pain but not understanding why and not knowing what to do about it can leave us feeling completely hopeless. We give up on ourselves. We start to believe there’s no chance for us to be happy, healthy, or prosperous. We become overtaken by our trauma, we come to self-identify with it, and it overpowers our entire lives. We start to think of suicide as the best solution to our pain. We see it as our way out.
When we’re depressed, when we’ve been traumatized, or when we feel alone in the world, we can have a hard time trusting people and opening up to them. Asking for help can feel impossible. We tend to isolate ourselves and retreat into our world, where we think we’re safe from being hurt further, where we believe we can better protect ourselves. We isolate ourselves so much that we become disconnected from loved ones, from our communities, and the other vital areas of our lives. We leave behind the interests and talents that helped us to find fulfillment and purpose in life. We separate ourselves from our family and friends. Our isolation can compound our depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. If they are left to fester and worsen over time – we’re not taking steps to heal, we’re not communicating with people or seeking help; we’re not getting proper medical attention for our severe mental illnesses. We can experience very dark, dreary times where we feel completely alone. When we’re in this place, the thought of ending our lives can bring us a sense of relief. We feel as though we’ll finally be able to escape all of our emotional issues and constant pain. Our self-isolation also often comes with self-abandonment. We start neglecting ourselves and our well-being. We stop taking care of ourselves. Everything from our physical well-being to our hygiene can suffer. We’re unable to stay on top of our self-care, and our health declines as a result. We can feel like we’ve hit rock bottom. Our lives have become dysfunctional, unmanageable, and unbearable. We don’t see a way to help ourselves. We don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel; we feel devoid of motivation and hope.
Perhaps some of the most significant contributors to self-abandonment are addiction and the wake of self-destruction that follows. When we don’t love and value ourselves, we become self-destructing, self-harming, and self-sabotaging. Addiction is a clear manifestation of this. We are using an addictive substance or behavior to harm ourselves, and our lack of self-love and self-worth keeps us from getting the help we need to make the necessary changes in our lives. We feel as though we’ve forsaken ourselves and given up on ourselves. Our addictions drive all kinds of self-harming behaviors, and they can exacerbate our suicidal thoughts. When we’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol, we can find the idea of suicide to be all the more appealing to help us relieve our emotional pain. When we’re inebriated, our ability to control our impulses is compromised, and this can apply to our suicidal impulses as well. Our judgment is impaired, and we’re less able to think through the consequences of harming ourselves. We’re not thinking clearly about the ramifications of hurting ourselves. We’re not able to give thought to possible solutions to our problems. We’re not able to accurately assess just how devastating our loss would be to our loved ones. We might be quicker to act on a suicidal thought or impulse when we’re under the influence. We also increase the risk of overdosing from our drug of choice and ending our lives unintentionally.
Relapse is one of the most painful experiences we go through. When we’ve tried to get sober and fallen off the wagon, we can feel so disappointed in ourselves, so ashamed and so hopeless that we think life is too painful to go on. We don’t see any point in continuing to try if we’re only going to wind up suffering, relapsing, and letting ourselves and all of our loved ones down, over and over again. Amid our pain, we can’t see that this relapse is a part of the recovery process, that it’s one of the many lessons and spiritual tests we go through on our path to healing. We don’t realize when we’re in so much pain that many people who have managed to get sober successfully also relapsed, only to go on to live happy, healthy, fulfilling lives. Our patterns of relapse can contribute to our suicidal thoughts and make us feel as though we’ve lost the will to live.
A common problem many young people face is the prevalence of drugs and alcohol being distributed at school, in their peer groups, and by their friends. They can feel incredible pressure from other young people to experiment with drugs and dangerous behaviors. Whether or not they develop a full-blown addiction, when young people use harmful substances and engage in reckless actions, their mental health issues can worsen as a result. They can experience more profound episodes of depression, spikes in their anxiety and panic attacks, and more intense suicidal thoughts. The drugs themselves can intensify their already growing painful emotions. When in these patterns of experimenting with drugs, young people are burying their emotional pain under layers of distraction and escapism. They are avoiding addressing their issues. They’re keeping their problems a secret and denying that they’re in trouble. They’re not allowing themselves help, and they’re not reaching out for support. In many ways, drug use can fuel the suicidal tendencies in young people, further preventing them from finding healthy outlets for their emotional difficulties.
Another widespread problem in schools is bullying. Young people can be susceptible to the opinions of their peers, as we all can be, and when bullied, they develop overwhelming feelings of insecurity, self-hatred, and self-rejection. Frequently those insecurities already exist within us, and the cruel words and treatment from other people can cause them to intensify and worsen over time. Young people begin to feel worthless, hated, and rejected by other people, and then they internalize those feelings and direct them inwardly. They lose their connection to their self-worth. Their sense of self suffers. They see their differences as weaknesses and things to be ashamed of, they feel disappointed in themselves. They are ridiculed for their skin color or their weight, sexual orientation, or reputation. Schools are not teaching a culture of respect and togetherness, and children are not learning the power of diversity and inclusiveness. They are not learning to live and work together in harmony. They are learning to reject and exclude people based on their differences, based on something as simple as another person disliking them, or based on something so trivial as an unfounded rumor. Young people are bullying each other not only with words but with physical assault, leaving their peers afraid even to go to school, feeling unsafe even in their neighborhoods. The number of young people committing or attempting suicide after having been bullied seems to be on the rise, and the pain they’re experiencing because of the cruel treatment of their peers seems to be a driving force behind their decision to try and end their lives.
Shame and Suicidal Thoughts
One of the many emotions that might contribute most to suicidal thoughts is that of shame. Many of us spend years of our lives condemning ourselves for the mistakes we’ve made and the things we’ve done wrong. We see ourselves as horrible people. We beat ourselves up, judge ourselves, and feel unable to forgive ourselves. We have a hard time having compassion for ourselves. We don’t give ourselves the understanding and forgiveness we deserve. We don’t give ourselves a chance to right our wrongs, correct our past blunders, and learn from our mistakes. We don’t feel we deserve a second chance. We don’t feel we deserve our forgiveness, let alone other people’s, and we hold ourselves back from trying to reconnect with the people we’ve hurt. We may already have tried to make amends that weren’t accepted. The pain of our shame, the pain of knowing the people we’ve wronged don’t forgive us, can be enough to drive us to consider suicide. We feel we have nothing left to live for, no way to find redemption in our lives.
When young people don’t have the means to address their mental and emotional health issues, the pain can become so debilitating that they feel they have no choice other than to take their own lives. They might not have a therapist, school counselor, or another adult they think they can turn trust. They might not be able to talk to their families, out of fear, they will disappoint them, or because they don’t want them to worry. They might have damaged or estranged relationships with their loved ones. They might not have anyone they feel loves or accepts them for who they are. The importance of having support when experiencing mental illness like depression and suicidal thoughts cannot be overemphasized. We all need people we can trust and spaces where we feel safe, especially when we’re young and particularly vulnerable to all of the emotional turmoil of adolescence and young adulthood. The greatest preventive measure we can take in combating suicide in young people is ensuring that everyone has access to the support they need to help them cope with their mental health challenges.
If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, PLEASE call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
If you or a loved one struggle to cope with being overwhelmed, call Steps Recovery Centers today – 385-250-1701- to talk with one of our trained clinicians. With levels of care from outpatient to residential, we can meet you where you are and help boost your journey to recovery.