*Priya did not expect to find her daughter at home that afternoon. But she did find her – hanging by a scarf from the ceiling of her bedroom, already dead. Krupa was 19.
It began like any other day for them.
The hustled morning. The coffee chit-chat. Her mild annoyance over Krupa neglecting to water the plants. The hurried breakfast. The instructions to drive safe. The roll of the eyes in response.
That nightmarish afternoon, when Priya couldn’t find a way to get into her own apartment after teaching a swimming lesson, her wildest imagination could not conjure up the possibility of her "happy" daughter ending up dead in her own bedroom.
Word spread fast. Police and strangers were bustling in and out of their home. Some sorry, some shocked, some relieved that it wasn’t their kid.
In an irony that did not escape anyone, Krupa’s room was filled with Post-it messages carrying intense motivational quotes. Stickers with hand-written messages covered an entire wall. Great role models sweating it out on posters. Actionable messages. To-do lists on her tabletop. Dreamy bucket-lists.
This girl oozed positivity. And then killed herself.
The only words that escaped her mother’s lips were, “ She never gave a clue! She looked so happy!”
Not surprisingly, this incident remained on the minds of other parents – especially those in the neighborhood – for the next few weeks. Fear crept in and clenched them without warning – during a quiet cup of coffee, through a conversation with a friend, in the middle of work, while hustling their child through homework. The silence of the nights became particularly terrifying.
Why did she do it? Where did her parents go wrong? Did she try to communicate?
The questions were many.
How much did we know about our kids? What are they thinking right now? How did she miss it? What am I missing? How would I know?
Suddenly, their own kids looked like strangers to them.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, a recent study found that suicide rates have surged to a 30-year high. The issue can now be described as an epidemic. It has also been reported as the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10-24.
Here are 10 eye-opening insights from child psychologists and teen suicide experts gained from years of working with suicidal teens, their support groups, and their parents.
Talking about suicide prevention is hard. To make it worse, this phenomenon seems to be on the rise in even seemingly happy and well-connected families – so what are we really missing?
Sarah Zalewski, a licensed professional counselor and cognitive behavior therapist from Connecticut who works with hundreds of teens every year, reiterates this rising occurrence. “This is true – some children commit suicide who nobody would suspect of even considering it. Unfortunately, children are not well known for their ability to see the big picture and to assess a current situation accurately.”
The somewhat good news is that most teens do exhibit symptoms, and they can be detected if observed closely. Many experts confirm that most of these symptoms may be subtle – minor changes in their behavior like an increase in aloofness or apathy and isolation from friends and family. Things that are easier to notice are the loss of interest in personal hygiene, their possessions, and food.
“Denial is a very powerful defense mechanism, and many adults miss the signs of an impending suicide attempt by denying the importance of the subtle changes they notice in their child's demeanor and behaviors,” warns Dr. Gayani DeSilva, a psychiatrist in practice at Laguna Psych in Laguna, California.
Many parents mistakenly assume that providing a happy growing experience for their child is synonymous with successfully shielding their own negative emotions from them. Experts point out, however, that genuine engagement happens only when the child is able to see, display, and digest a range of emotions – and perceive them as entirely normal.
Cara Maksimow, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Maximize Wellness explains, “When families seem happy all the time, they may be teaching children that it is not okay to have negative emotions. Children’s feelings are not validated or normalized and hence they learn how to hide those feelings to fit in. These children don’t learn that feelings such as anger or sadness are normal parts of life and that there is validity in having a range of emotions.”
Not enough can be said about how critical it is to establish a bond during the early years. Teenagers can't be expected to come out suddenly and express themselves when they are already in the throes of intense emotions. The channels for communication need to be established in the early years.
Recognizing the fact that children are naturally resilient and helping them realize their inherent strengths will develop a strong sense of self and healthy self-esteem in the child. “Take every opportunity every day to point out the child’s internal strengths,” advises Dr. DeSilva.
These practices have physiological benefits as well. Dr. Christopher Willard, faculty at Harvard Medical School and author of "Growing Up Mindful" affirms that “spending a lot of time with children in the early years helps develop the brain so it can respond more efficiently to stress and mental health issues if they arise in later years.”
The causes of teen suicide are often unknowable and worse, untraceable. Experts agree that many factors contribute to mental health issues. Meredith Rene Chapman, M.D, a psychiatrist at Children's Health GENECIS program in Dallas, who specializes in helping teens with gender dysmorphia, explains that "apart from health issues like chronic pain or physical pain, chronic anxiety left untreated can exacerbate the tendencies for suicide. When a youth's ability to cope is overwhelmed by stressors, the risk of suicide increases manifold."
Adolescence is a strange mix of invincibility and vulnerability. Teenagers are more than willing to push the limits on risky behaviors, merely as a mechanism to establish their own identities. Many teens experience the rush of alcohol and marijuana for the very first time, and the experience could mean the beginning of a vortex.
Dr. DeSilva goes on to explain, “Substance abuse and intoxication increases the risk of suicide 60-80%. The substance does not matter – it could be a depressant like alcohol, or a stimulant like cocaine. Intoxication alters a person's ability to keep a realistic perspective and see options. Particularly in teenagers, when they have a sense of invincibility coupled with their lack of experience that there are multiple ways to solve current problems and manage their feelings, they are at particular risk of attempting suicide."
Most parents seem to talk to teens about sex, college, money – but to bring up suicide is taboo. Understandably, there is a certain reluctance on the part of parents to broach this hideous topic, but parents need to know that the more it is openly spoken about, the less taboo it is. As Zalewski reassures us, “Broaching the subject is not going to create suicidal thoughts in someone who doesn't already have them. This has been established in research multiple times.”
One of the best tactics to detect suicidal tendencies is to make friends with your child’s friends. Get to know their circles. Invite them over. Organize get-togethers.
Here’s Zalewski again: “90% of the time I find a child who is suicidal, it's because a friend of the child has tipped me (or another adult, who then calls me) off. Often, the suicidal child is making statements on social media that are scaring their friends. But again, these kids are more likely to come to you if they know they can approach you. These tips can save lives!”
It's not a myth that the teen brain undergoes real changes in the brain during this time. One of the most important considerations for schools would be a later start time in the morning. This could also be one of the easiest adjustments to make.
According to Dr. Robert Rosenberg, a sleep expert and author of "Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic," teenagers require significantly more sleep than adults during this growth phase. “There is a higher incidence of depression, anxiety, and suicide in sleep-deprived teenagers," affirms Dr. Rosenberg.
Even though it may seem eerie to equip schools with suicide-prevention experts, especially after the infamous Palo Alto suicide clusters, schools need to build better systems for imparting coping skills to kids.
“Schools need to institute a better screening method for suicidal tendencies among children,” says Dr. Willard, encouraging schools to build a conscious effort around preventing stress and competition around academic performance.
Parents can certainly help. As counterintuitive as it may seem, revel in your child’s failure. Make your child's failures as important as their successes, as this will shift the focus to the effort rather than on the results. As several studies have pointed out, cultivating this “growth mindset” is the key to building the cornerstone quality of resilience – especially for children at a fragile point in their lives.
Another huge factor is the stigma around mental health. Dr. DeSilva says, “If a teenager broke his or her leg, he would have no issue going to a hospital and getting treatment for the fracture. Symptoms of depression are not treated the same way. Teaching kids about mental health and symptoms and normalizing treatment the same way as for physical symptoms is the key to their telling their family or friends about their painful emotions.”
One of the ways to do this is to have a strategic plan for how to handle substance abuse, bullying, and depression. Having a licensed therapist associated with the schools to consult on these issues regularly will help. A curriculum invested in teaching students basic emotion-regulation skills is also a must-have.
To be sure, a society whose children want to kill themselves needs a lot of work. Even a small shift towards the positive can yield big results.
Dr. DeSilva muses, “Perhaps (devoting) a segment on the daily news to local school activities and children's contributions – as we do to professional sports teams or the local politics – will make me watch the news again!” Giving responsibility to kids significantly reduces their risk of depression.
And let’s not underestimate this statistic: "Guns are used in approximately half the suicides," Zalewski points out. Guns definitely should not be in the hands of kids.
In a culture where nearly every other cause of death warrants a headline, somehow the disturbing phenomenon of young adults killing themselves is relegated to the back pages or goes unreported. The time for us to pay close attention to the emotional health of our society is now.
*Based on a true incident