Trigger warning: This blog post contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or behaviour, seek help immediately. These help lines are open 24 hours a day:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
The tragedy of teenage girl Daani Sanders taking her own life this week weighs heavily on my heart. As a mother with teenage daughters, I have been giving them lots of extra cuddles and kisses. Some media are reporting that bullying on Facebook may have played a role. Certainly since her death, cyberbullies have attacked memorial pages set up on Facebook by her friends. I received comments that I felt were not healing for other teens on my YouTube page featuring an interview I gave with Kerrianne about this topic and made the decision this morning to disable comments:
The hateful comments that have appeared on Facebook are a timely reminder that we all need to keep a close eye on what our teenagers are doing and seeing online. It is especially important that we support our daughters and sons right now, as thousands of Facebook users, including many teens, are joining and viewing the memorial pages. The pages contain a mix of comments – some are healing; some are well-meaning but potentially damaging to vulnerable teens because they inadvertently glorify suicide; and some are intentionally malicious and destructive. Our kids need our help and support in navigating what they might see and read on those memorial pages.
Teens, especially girls, are immersed in the world of social networking from the moment they wake up till the moment they go to bed. These connections are vitally important to them, so the last thing I would want any parent to do is try to ban their daughter from social networking sites – instead, I think it’s important that we educate ourselves and get involved.
For guidance in speaking publicly about this topic, and in helping teens navigate what they see and read about it on social-networking sites and in the media, I have turned to the guidelines for journalists on the reporting of suicide. These guidelines were established by Mindframe, which is affiliated with the Federal Government’s National Media Initiative.
Mindframe cautions that there is “a strong association between news media presentations of suicide and increases in actual suicidal behaviour”, with greater coverage leading to an increase in suicides. This does not mean that we should stop talking to our kids about this topic, though. In fact, there is a decrease in suicidal behaviour when it is portrayed as “a tragic waste and an avoidable loss” and when stories about suicide focus on “the devastating effects on others”.
Many of the commenters on the Facebook memorial pages are conjecturing about the method used. It is important as parents and teachers that we reframe the conversation, because “not reporting method or location” is another way of decreasing the risk of others engaging in suicidal behaviour. Focusing on those who have overcome suicidal thinking is another way to decrease the risk.
Mindframe notes that “we need to find ways of increasing community discussion of suicide and suicide prevention”, which is my aim. Just one teen suicide is too many, so below I am sharing with you an excerpt from my book The Butterfly Effect on the warning signs and what to do if you notice them. For resources on cyberbullying and helping girls stay safe online, you might find these past blog posts helpful: Cyber Bully Busting
Making Friends With Facebook
And for strategies to deal with bullying generally: Bullying, It’s Time to Focus On solutions
Girls in Crisis
What many people who try to take their lives share is a sense of being trapped in a stressful or painful situation, a situation that they are powerless to change. Having depression or a mental illness raises a person’s risk of suicide. Stressful life events or ongoing stressful situations may fuel feelings of desperation or depression that can lead to suicide attempts. Examples of these stresses include the death of a loved one, divorce or a relationship breakup, a child custody dispute, settling in to a blended family, financial trouble, or a serious illness or accident. Any kind of abuse – physical, verbal or sexual – increases the risk, and that applies not only to teens but their mothers and fathers as well, even if that abuse took place many years ago but is unresolved. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can either directly lead to suicidal feelings or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.
Looking at teens in particular, bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make children try to take their own life. Also, teens are right in the middle of forming their own individual identities and a major component of that is their sexuality. For a teenager who is questioning their sexual preference or gender, the pressure to be like everyone else, the taunting they receive because they clearly are not, or their own guilt and confusion can become unbearable. A relationship breakup can be a trigger for suicide in some teens. As adults, we have the ability to look at the bigger picture and know that in years to come, a teenage breakup will not seem anywhere near as important as it does at the time. Your teenage daughter, on the other hand, may not yet have the maturity to see beyond the immediate pain. If she seems unduly distressed about a breakup, pay attention. Another trigger for teen suicide is the recent suicide of someone close to them, or the anniversary of a suicide or death of someone close to them, so these are times when your daughter may need extra support.
Suicide is hard to talk about. It is almost taboo, simply too painful to touch on. But silence can be deadly. Often the parents of a teen girl at risk of suicide do not ask their daughter the tough question of whether she is planning to take her own life. In part they may be in a state of denial, which is only human – after all, no parent wants to imagine that their daughter feels suicidal. They may also have a fear that seems to be ingrained in our culture: that if they mention suicide to their depressed or distressed daughter, they will be putting the idea in her head. But experts in adolescent mental health agree that it is more than okay to speak directly to your daughter about suicide. “Parents are often worried that by asking they may make matters worse. Well, I have never known a child to suicide because someone asked whether they were thinking about it,” says Dr Brent Waters. “They should ask; the issues won’t just go away.”
Another unhelpful myth about suicide is that a teen who talks about suicide is simply seeking attention and won’t actually take her life. In fact, four out of five young people who commit suicide tell someone of their intentions beforehand. Besides, I have never understood the point of making a distinction between attention seeking, a cry for help or a genuine intention to commit suicide. Even if a teen is not actually going to go through with a plan to take her life, if she is distressed enough to cry out for help, her voice needs to be heard and she needs our support.
Suicide warning signs
• Loss of interest in activities she used to enjoy
• Giving away her prized possessions
• Thoroughly cleaning her room and throwing out important things
• Violent or rebellious behaviour
• Running away from home
• Substance abuse
• Taking no interest in her clothes or appearance
• A sudden, marked personality change
• Withdrawal from friends, family and her usual activities
• A seeming increase in her accident proneness, or signs of self-harm
• A change in eating and sleeping patterns
• A drop in school performance, due to decreased concentration and feelings of boredom
• Frequent complaints about stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms that may be linked to emotional upsets
• Rejection of praise or rewards
• Verbal hints such as “I won’t be a problem for you much longer” or “Nothing matters anyway”
• Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of being down, which may indicate she has made a resolution to take her life
What you can do
Reading the list of suicide warning signs is enough to chill anyone, but there is much you can do to help someone who is suicidal. Number one: if anyone – child, adolescent or adult – says something like “I want to kill myself” or “I’m going to kill myself”, seek help straightaway. Remove anything they might be tempted to use to kill themselves with and stay with them. Dial 000 if you need to, or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available throughout Australia 24 hours a day:
• Lifeline: 13 11 14
• Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
• Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
In New Zealand, phone:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Another valuable thing you can do to help someone you fear is having suicidal thoughts is to listen. These pointers are adapted from the Victorian Government’s excellent “Youth suicide prevention – the warning signs” on www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au:
• Listen and encourage her to talk
• Tell her you care
• Acknowledge her feelings
• Reassure her
• Gently point out the consequences of her suicide, for her and the people she leaves behind
• Stay calm; try not to panic or get angry
• Try not to interrupt her
• Try not to judge her
• Don’t overwhelm her with too much advice or stories about your own experiences
My thoughts are with Daani Sander’s family and friends. My thoughts are with all of us who have lost loved ones through suicide. May we all, somehow, find peace. xxx
Postscript 25/7: I was interviewed by Miranda Devine for her column entitled “A Network of Nastiness” late last week. It offers further commentary on cyber bullying and the perils of the always on on-line world.