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Tag: suicide prevention

Carrying the burden

Mental health issues are taking a terrible toll on our teens.

But it’s time we also acknowledged the damaging ripple effect carrying the burden of worrying about their suffering friends may be having on their peers too. Because while it’s encouraging that young people are asking each other “are you OK?”, if the answer to that question happens to be “no”, what are kids meant to do with this information?

Make no mistake, there are plenty of young people out there currently serving as inexperienced, unqualified counsellors to their highly vulnerable mates. In fact, a struggling adolescent is actually more likely to first talk about their problems with a close friend before reaching out to their own family. And often, the conversation will be couched as one expected to be kept private; “Please don’t tell anyone but …”

For teens on the receiving end of a disclosure that a friend is struggling, there may well be a reluctance to pass on their worries to an adult for fear of being accused of betraying a confidence; secrets are a particularly powerful form of social currency for teenagers and often shared to solidify friendships.

Teens are taking on the burden of friends’ mental health struggles. (Pic: iStock)

Through my work in schools, I have in fact noted a generation burdened with feelings of responsibility for the mental health and safety of their inner circle. In a misguided attempt to maintain their friend’s confidence, often teens acting as a support person will struggle alone. “I guess the best I can do is just to be there for her, ” one 15-year-old girl told me. And thanks to the always-on social media world our teens inhabit, the support is often delivered 24/7. She concluded: “Whenever she feel like hurting herself, she calls me first and I talk her through those feelings. It actually is really stressing me out, but I can’t let her down. She told me if it wasn’t for me, she’d want to end it. I am so scared something bad will happen to her if I don’t respond to her messages.”

Some young people are, however, at least reaching out anonymously to seek direction in knowing how to support friends they are worried about.

Kids Help Line, a telephone counselling service for young people, recorded almost one thousand calls in 2017 alone from kids concerned over the mental health of someone they know. Over half of these related to concern that their friend was suicidal (Kids Help Line are in fact so highly aware of how prevalent this concern is that they offer downloadable resources on this topic, front and centre on their website’s homepage).

Jaelea Skehan, director of Every Mind (one of the organisations behind the latest mental health #youcantalk campaign) explains: “There’s a lot of young people holding heavy stuff for others. Being a good friend is about reaching out and checking in on our friends, but it is also about recognising when we aren’t equipped to manage complex issues and involving professionals who do have those skills.”

Jaelea Skehan is the director of Every Mind, who are behind the #youcantalk campaign. (Pic: Peter Lorimer)

We need to very clear. Yes, we can talk. However, young people urgently need to be reassured that reporting concerns they hear to trusted adults is vital — and isn’t a betrayal of their friend’s trust.

How can we break this message down for them?

I teach teens that we should never keep dark secrets for people. When a young person begins talking to me and says something to the effect, “I want to tell you something but you must promise not to tell anyone.” I respond with the following; “You may tell me anything. And I will listen with my whole heart. But if you have been hurt, or could be hurt, I want you to know that I care too much about you not to do something about that.”

All young people need to know that reporting concerns to trusted adults is not a betrayal. Rather, it shows the depth of their compassion and bravery.

Tools to know how to best manage the conversations they are having are also important to share with our kids. They don’t need to solve complex issues, but simply acknowledge their friend’s feelings and tell them they care. They can also gently point out the consequences of their friend’s actions, for both themselves and the people that care for them. And if their friend has been hurt, or could be hurt? They can support their mate to get the professional help they deserve.

Teens should also be encouraged to take care of themselves during this process. They can reach out and debrief with a trusted adult if they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious by what they’ve been told (this is particularly important as we know that suicide can have a contagion effect on vulnerable youth).

By caring for themselves too, these accidental counsellors will be modelling for their mates that while sharing with those closest to us is a helpful first step, healing comes from also talking with professionals.

This OpEd was first published by The Daily Telegraph, 11/8/18

Cyber Self-harming

This week I am sharing a guest post by my colleague and friend Nina Funnell which first appeared in The Age. In this Nina attempts to make sense of alarming new findings which suggest teens (girls in particular) are engaging in digital self-harm.

 

In recent weeks, media outlets around the world have reported on the tragic case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire, England, who committed suicide, after receiving cruel and harassing messages – including to “drink bleach” and “die” – on the social media site Ask.fm.

Critics of the site have urged parents to keep their children off it, saying that the anonymous question/ answer format leads to harassment, stalking and bullying.

Now the case has taken another tragic turn. In an inquiry into the matter, Ask.fm has uncovered that 98 per cent of the abusive messages sent to Hannah came from the same IP address as her own computer. Only four of the abusive comments came from other IP addresses.

While there are still a lot of unknowns in this case, it has now been reported that the abuse sent to Hannah appears to have come from Hannah herself. Following this latest development, many people online have expressed their utter bewilderment: what could drive a teenager to attack herself and then put it on display? Why would anyone self-sabotage in this way? And are other teenagers doing this?

Last year, researchers at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre found that up to ten per cent of first year university students had “falsely posted a cruel remark against themselves, or cyberbullied themselves, during high school”.

And this is not the first time that online ‘self-harassment’ or ‘self-cyberbullying’ has been identified and written about. In 2010, danah boyd, a leading social media researcher wrote about an emerging trend she had discovered on Formspring, where teens were ‘anonymously’ posting vicious questions to themselves, before publicly answering them.

Similarly, in 2008 I conducted research into the pro-anorexia community – a community set up by individuals with eating disorders. I discovered that it was not uncommon for members on these forums to write letters of worship to their disease referred to as ‘Ana’ or ‘Mia’ (anorexia or bulimia). The same member would then write a reply to themselves as though they were the personified disease. These second letters ‘from’ Ana or Mia would inevitably be full of abuse, insults and vicious put downs.

So what motivates this phenomenon and why have we heard so little about it?

According to boyd, online self-harassment like that observed on Formspring or Ask.fm, may represent a cry for help, a grab for attention, an opportunity to demonstrate toughness and resilience, or a way of phishing for compliments from friends who jump in to defend against the abuse. Boyd also describes the behavior as a form of ‘digital self-harming’, stressing that teens who are in pain do not always lash out at others: very often they lash out at themselves. And occasionally they invite an audience to watch on.

For the ‘digital self-harmer’ the presence of an audience appears to serve other purposes too. Anonymously calling oneself a “loser” online allows them to test out other people’s attitudes: do other people see me this way too? Is my perception of myself shared universally?

Secondly, by inflicting harm on themselves before an audience, it makes their pain visible and therefore more ‘real’. Finally, by giving others the impression that they are ‘under attack’, the afflicted individual is able communicate to others exactly what they are feeling: overwhelmed and under siege. And they can achieve this without ever having to risk saying the words: “I’m in pain, I need your help”.

What this means is that while the abusive comments might be manufactured the feelings they speak to are very much real.

Looking back at my own high school years, it is clear that aspects of this behavior are nothing new. Teens have always had a propensity to document their negative self-talk and self-loathing in one form or another, often in journals, angst ridden poetry and other forms of art. Sometimes teens keep these things deeply private out of secrecy and shame. At other times, they deliberately share and show these things to friends, as if to say “see my pain. See me.”

For all of us, pain is not simply something we feel, it is something we ‘perform’, often with the purpose of eliciting certain responses from others. For teenagers especially, these performances can become avenues through which they bond, ask for empathy or sympathy, and experience a sense of connectedness – something which most teenagers crave desperately. While this strategy might serve a need, it is also deeply dysfunctional.

Today this impulse is moving online. In recent months I have had two conversations with different mothers after they discovered that their children’s friends were self-harming, then posting photographs of their injuries online for their peers to comment on. Perhaps most disturbing of all was that one of the children shrugged it off as “nothing new”.

Experts are right to worry that by normalising or even glamorising self-harming behaviors, such overt displays might produce a contagion effect. This is why it’s considered dangerous to even mention the issue in schools.

Despite this, it’s important that researchers continue to look at why young people are externalising their self-hatred in this way and what can be done to help them. Moreover we must remember that sometimes the cruelest things a teen will ever hear are the comments they say to themselves.

For related posts read: Girls in crises – self harm and what you can do about it.

Rage and despair – positive, helpful ways to support girls in crises 

Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards
Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards

Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. Nina and I also recently co-wrote a book for young women on navigating dating and relationships; this will be published by Harper Collins in February, 2014.

Rage and despair: Positive, helpful ways to support girls in crisis

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:
Australia
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354

All of us at Enlighten have been heartbroken to see a number of media reports recently of teens taking their own lives. Cath Manning, one of Enlighten’s Victoria workshop presenters, is concerned about the high rates of depression and suicide in her area. Interviewed along with Steve Biddulph this week by her local media, Cath made this great point:

I think we sometimes forget that teen girls are going through the same things we went through when we were growing up, however, today there is even more pressure on them due to the relentless media images and messages they are bombarded with, and the added complications with social media. Of course, social media is here to stay, and there really are great benefits that come with that, but young girls just need to be given the tools to engage with the medium in a positive, helpful way.

Positive — that’s the key. There are positive things we can all do to help our kids cope. We can listen and look for the signs that all may not be well in their world, and we can offer our support. Due to the recent media coverage of teen suicides, a lot of parents and teachers have been asking my advice, so this seems a good time to share an excerpt from my book for parents, The Butterfly Effect, on how to identify and help teen girls in crisis. For the teen girls in your life, I have also written a version of the book specifically for them, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo. Both are available for purchase here.

Rage and Despair: Suicide

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. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can lead to suicidal feelings either directly or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.

Bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make teens 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. A teenage girl, 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 girls 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 her 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 child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Brent Waters.

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.

What you can do

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 in Australia or 111 in New Zealand or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available 24 hours a day:

Australia

  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
  • Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22

New Zealand

  • 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

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

 
(Heart image by Seyed Mostafa Zamani, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

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