Searching: Addressing suicidal thoughts in young people
Updated: Oct 5
Demystifying the trends and resources around suicide awareness
By Erica Irish
Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.
It’s those words printed on a sign I see one morning as I drive to my family home on Indianapolis’ south side. The sign was part of a series posted outside Perry Meridian High School in September, suicide awareness and prevention month nationally. They listed affirmations for students as they returned to school in a pandemic.
Don’t give up.
Thousands our age have considered suicide during the pandemic, according to a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The survey, conducted in June, found that 11% of respondents had “seriously considered” suicide since COVID-19 became a national crisis in March. But for respondents ages 18 to 24, that number was double — some 1 in 4 had considered suicide during the pandemic.
It’s a troubling finding that reflects a longer trend of spiking depression, anxiety and suicide among young people. As the American Association of Suicidology reports, suicide remains the second leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 34 in the United States. Rates also remain higher than they have in 50 years for Americans, according to the association, and that’s been the case since 2017.
But what is encouraging, said Franklin College counselor Sara Kinder, is the willingness of some students to talk about their experiences having suicidal thoughts — a part of mental health treatment that still remains stigmatized and feared.
“Most suicidal people want to live,” Kinder said. “They want to find a way to live, but don’t want to live with the pain and suffering they’re experiencing.”
You got this.
True, young people may be more likely to talk about topics like mental health and seek assistance like therapy than their predecessors. But there are bigger, sociological issues at play.
Members of Generation Z — those now between the ages of eight and 23,
according to PEW Research Center — saw a stable economy and record-low unemployment be upended this spring by the pandemic. Gen Zers have been disproportionately affected by the strain, reporting lost jobs and financial crisis at rates higher than other generations.
Cheryl Crane, sociology professor at Franklin College, said people are most at risk of suicide when they lose their sense of place in society. Students who are poor, who are first-generation college students, who identify as Black or brown at a predominately white institution like Franklin College all face greater risk of alienation in times of crisis.
“Feeling untethered to the systems that make you feel like you have structure and identity is a risk,” Crane said. “You may still have all those same resources you had, but it doesn’t feel like you’re connected to the community.”
Whether through real or perceived marginalization, isolation isn’t good for anyone, Crane said, and it must remain a focus when creating structures that aim to prevent suicide on campus.
“We need to be cognizant of the fact students are grieving,” Crane said. “Most students haven’t been interacting with the institution of education like this at all.”
Jamie Bromley, associate professor of psychology, said it is hope communities need to keep those at risk connected. And a major part of that process, Bromley said, is removing barriers to effective treatment.
“Treatment can give people hope, but we can also instill hope in each other,” Bromley said.
Don’t give up.
And when someone you love attempts suicide, reasons like this don’t come to mind. What does arrive is panic. Trauma in crisis, then grief as we wonder if it will ever get better.
And sometimes resilience will appear, too, as we join hands to fight a beast that might have a name, but isn’t as easily demystified when it becomes part of a person.
When one of my relatives began a mental health journey, it upended our family. Years of old habits and mindsets had to go out the window to ensure that person survived — and thrived — in a world that’s caused them immense pain, uncertainty and isolation.
We’ve come to realize in that time suicide prevention is much more than affirmations and resilience. It’s about good policy, access to affordable treatment and communities that embrace real conversations about mental health.
Always offering this simple reminder helps, too.