Talking to Teen Girls About Suicide
Stacy Smith* was 15 the first time she tried to commit suicide. Her parents immediately took her to see her pediatrician, who suggested that Stacy see a psychiatrist. When Stacy’s depression continued, she tried again at age 16, cutting her wrists.
As she watched the blood drain from her body, something within her opened her eyes to everything she had to live for, and she yelled to her parents for help. Stacy survived the ordeal, and the northeast Indiana resident is now doing well in her high school and church youth group. Stacy has plans to attend college after graduation.
The same can’t be said for 18-year-old Brandy Vela of Texas City, Texas, who in 2016 gave in to her classmates’ bullying demands that she should stop living. She’d finally had enough of listening to people call her fat and ugly, and she shot and killed herself.
Today, more and more teen girls are considering suicide than ever before. A recent study published in Pediatrics shows that youth treated at U.S. children’s hospitals because of suicidal thoughts or attempts more than doubled from 2008 to 2015, with almost two-thirds of the cases involving girls. The attempts that succeed, however, also have more than doubled.
Though suicides for all ages have increased, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates for females ages 15-19 are at their highest since the CDC began tracking them in 1975.
While the statistics are clear, the motives aren’t.
“We can speculate on a number of reasons for the increase,” says Leatisher Granville, a licensed professional clinical counselor at EMERGE Counseling Services in Akron, Ohio. Factors can be as varied as psychological/mental health struggles to issues of bullying and social media pressures. Stress also plays a key role, encompassing hormonal and major life changes, such as divorce, a geographical relocation, school pressures, self-esteem, and body image. But the one commonality, says Granville, is that teen girls are suffering in silence.
“They feel hopeless,” says Granville. “They’re being overlooked, often times in their homes, schools, and churches. They don’t feel they have anyone to help them because they don’t feel they have adults in their lives who notice them.”
As life becomes busier for families, she’s found that many parents are more detached than before.
“These girls aren’t as resilient as we’d like,” Granville says, who has seen an uptick in EMERGE’s clients struggling with suicidal thoughts. “Adults often forget what the pressures of adolescence are like.” She believes many teens don’t feel as though adults take their experiences seriously.
While the stories and statistics are unnerving, Casey Gibbons believes preventative measures can be taken. Gibbons, who works as the teen girl specialist for Assemblies of God National Girls Ministries, says teen girls take a lot of small steps along the way before they reach the point of suicide. If adults pay attention to a teen’s concerns, even ones that seem insignificant, those girls feel heard, noticed, and known, says Gibbons, who, with her husband, Scotty, has six children — including four daughters between the ages of 11 to 15.
“We know we have to be intentional in how we engage with our girls,” Gibbons says. “We choose to treat them with grace as a child, but respect them as if they are adults.” She believes that parents have the greatest responsibility and opportunity to be on the front lines.
“We need to be constantly vigilant to what’s happening with our teens, and not just brush off concerns,” Gibbons says. She encourages parents not to be afraid of asking probing, straightforward questions.
Gibbons, who, with her husband has been involved in pastoral youth ministry for 25 years, thinks leaders should be watching for warning signs.
“Teachers, coaches, extended family, and friends can help, but these girls especially need spiritual leadership,” she says. She believes mentors in girls’ lives have strong abilities to impact teens’ outlooks by paying attention, talking openly, and asking questions, such as, How are you coping with life? How are you handling stress? Are you struggling with suicidal thoughts?
“We need to teach these young women how to counteract suicidal thoughts, to take every thought captive, as the Bible tells us, through the power of the Holy Spirit,” she says, citing 2 Corinthians 10:5.
While Gibbons believes influencers can teach lessons from the pulpit and in the home, the greatest support she’s seen comes through honest, vulnerable, and authentic discussions held in gender-specific, mentor-led small groups.
“When girls not only hear how other girls feel, but are able to extend their own advice, it connects them on a deeper level to help deal with issues,” she says.
Both Gibbons and Granville suggest that adults take the lead rather than waiting for teens to volunteer information. Granville says it’s important not to assume teens don’t want to talk or that they don’t have deeper pain going on just because they don’t say anything.
“Create a heart and an atmosphere of hospitality that says I’m here for you,” Granville advises. Teens don’t need answers so much as a listening ear and the respect of being heard and noticed, she suggests.
Granville also recommends keeping an eye out for the warning signals: withdrawal, apathy, personality or behavior changes, becoming moodier or more agitated than usual, sleeping or eating less or more than customary, giving things away, or writing depressive or farewell posts on social media.
“A lot of teens are now writing their suicide notes on their social media pages,” says Granville. “Follow their page and watch what they’re posting.”
Teen girls need to know their purpose in life, Granville says, and she suggests asking questions that help them recognize they have been created by God for a reason. Adults don’t need academic training or special credentials to display compassion, she says.
Gibbons adds that girls gain a different perspective on life when they understand they have purpose and when they have a personal relationship with Jesus. Teen girls need to know they have life-giving options, she says.
“We’re raising up a generation of girls who love Jesus and are thriving, because we’re letting them know they have outlets for support,” Gibbons says. “It’s not as difficult as it seems. There’s always hope.”