LOVE LIFE: Suicide in Seattle - 16 Risk Factors

Posted on by YFC Seattle

By Warren Mainard and Mark Haug

Suicide is a complex issue and there are no simple answers.  There are however, a number of risk factors that can contribute to a set of circumstances that may put a student at a greater risk of considering or attempting to commit suicide.  This article will briefly explain the impact of each factor and how youth leaders and parents can mitigate the risk involved.

RISK FACTORS

  1. Academic Pressure - According to an article in The Washington Post, students attending “high-achieving schools” are now considered to be “at-risk” on a level comparable with students in poverty, foster care, recent immigrants and students with parents who are incarcerated. Students facing “excessive pressure to excel” are two to three times more likely to develop mental health issues that contribute to suicide

    Corresponding studies show that when students in these environments come from homes where the values of the parents are equally focused on being a person of character and integrity, they are much more likely to maintain a healthy perspective on their academics.  Youth leaders would do well to spend regular time teaching and focusing on the importance of “being” over “doing.”  The message of grace, central to the Gospel communicates that our worth and value is not based on personal achievement, but rather on the substance of Christ’s work on our behalf.
     
  2. Other Suicides - When someone chooses to die by suicide, it is critical to reach out to those closest that may be at risk of suicide as well.  “According to a 2016 study, it is estimated that 115 people are exposed to a single suicide, with one in five reporting that this experience had a devastating impact or caused a major-life disruption.”

    Youth leaders may often be the first person to talk with a student impacted by suicide.  When you do, remember that decreasing the stigma of suicide requires speaking openly about suicide and asking direct questions to the student at risk.  By bringing the issue out of the darkness, you are also helping bring students out of feelings of isolation as well.
     
  3. Easy Access to Lethal Means - Many suicide attempts take place during a short term crisis.  By reducing the access to lethal means, a student is significantly less likely to die by suicide.  Youth leaders should counsel concerned parents to remove all firearms from the house and lock up all prescription medication.  Similarly, when talking to a troubled student, youth leaders should ask them directly (see the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale for deeper understanding) if they have thought about killing themselves and how they planned to do so.  By identifying the plan for their attempt, youth leaders can work with the student and their parents to help remove or reduce access to lethal means.
     
  4. Previous History of a Suicide Attempt - Studies show that for every 1 completed suicide, there are 150-200 attempts.  Students who have attempted to commit suicide are at a significantly higher risk level than those that have not.  Do not minimize a failed attempt at suicide, but seek treatment and talk about the issues related to the suicide attempt directly.
     
  5. Poor Management or Undiagnosed Mental Health - Most Suicides are a result of untreated depression.  If a student begins showing the signs of depression or suicide, students should be directed to a doctor or mental health expert.  While Youth Leaders and parents can be a very important part of the care experience, they should not attempt to circumvent professional help.
     
  6. Substance Abuse - According to www.samhsa.gov, over 40% of all suicides involve an abuse of alcohol, opiates and prescription drugs.  What may begin as a way to party and blow off steam can become an unhealthy coping mechanism and escape from life.

    Youth leaders and parents should be consistent in talking with teens about the dangers of substance abuse.  In addition, youth leaders and parents should consistently focus on teaching healthy coping habits for students who may be struggling to find relief from stress.
     
  7. Social Pressure - More than traditional peer pressure, social pressure includes the continual pressure to solve the problems in our community, culture and world.  Social pressure can include a variety of issues including political division, school violence, family brokenness, drama at school, etc.  In a recent national study, 75% of students reported feeling anxious about mass shootings, 58% report anxiety over climate change and 57% are worried about issues related to separation and deportation of immigrant and migrant families. These are just a few examples of social pressure that exists in a culture where students are more aware of the brokenness in and around them than ever before.

    Youth leaders and parents would be wise to acknowledge the reality of the brokenness in our world and the corresponding stress and anxiety that comes along with it.  Without minimizing the issues, youth leaders should strive to give eternal perspective, reminding students of the sovereignty of God in all things and the coming return or Jesus to establish a Kingdom of Shalom.  In the meantime, believers are invited to seek and share the hope of the Kingdom with the world around them.  
     
  8. Prolonged PTSD - “It is estimated that approximately 4–6% of youth in the general population nationwide will meet criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD following a traumatic event, including symptoms such as poor concentration and intrusive thoughts, which can also severely interfere with school functioning.” (ncbi.gov).  Many students experience trauma in their formative years, as demonstrated through the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) studies.  Not all students who have experienced trauma develop PTSD, but it is a common factor in students who are at a higher risk for death by suicide.

    Youth leaders and parents should consult a counselor if they sense a student is suffering from PTSD.  While there are many layers to PTSD which are beyond a youth leader or parents capacity to treat, youth leaders should be aware of how the 40 Developmental Assets can create a culture where students dealing with PTSD issues can find support.
     
  9. Abusive Social Media - Nearly 40% of all students report feeling bad about themselves as a result of social media use.  Cyber bullying and exposure to stress inducing, violent, sexual or traumatic content can all contribute to a form of digital abuse.  Paired with other factors, an unhealthy social media engagement can place students at high risk.

    Youth leaders and parents should carefully teach about both boundaries and discernment when it comes to social media.  Every family must determine what boundaries are healthy and necessary for social media use.  In addition, students must be taught to exercise wisdom and discretion in how they utilize their time on social media, what they consume and what they post.  Youth leaders should seek to teach through wisdom literature such as Proverbs in a way that engages students to think reflectively on what they experience on social media. 
     
  10. Isolation and Loneliness - “More than half of Gen Zers identify with 10 of the 11 feelings associated with loneliness,” according to a recent report based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Barna Research says that this may be the loneliest generation in the history of the world.  

    Perhaps more than any other risk factor, youth leaders can offer something truly powerful to combat the impact of loneliness- community.  Parents should partner with local youth ministries to prioritize students schedules to make regular, authentic community a key part of their lives.  In response to the critical need to establish community for students on their school campus, Youth For Christ is working with local church youth leaders to establish CORE groups at Middle School and High Schools in greater Seattle.
     
  11. Major Physical Illness in the Family - A family member dealing with cancer or an ongoing battle with a disease such as lupus, may cause a student to be at greater risk of suicide.  Especially when there seems to be no cure or no hope of the physical illness improving, hopelessness can set in.  The fear of loss (loss of a loved one or loss of a dream) can be debilitating. 

    Youth leaders and parents would do well to begin with empathy and hope.  As students have opportunity to reflect, consider pointing to examples of those who have endured physical illness or suffering and grew through it.
     
  12.  Loss (Death, Divorce, Moving, Losing a Friend) - Experiencing loss can be devastating to a young person, especially relational loss.  When a relationship is torn out of a young person's life, it can feel as if the void will never be filled again.

    Youth leaders and parents should remember how important it is to be present in such situations.  The void may never be filled completely, but when a student is suffering from loss, the most important thing that leaders can offer is a consistent ministry of presence.
     
  13. Bullying - The relationship between bullying and suicide is complex. Many media reports oversimplify this relationship, insinuating or directly stating that bullying can cause suicide. The facts tell a different story. It can be dangerous to present bullying as a reason or cause for suicide, or that suicide is a natural response to bullying. 

    Students should learn to self-advocate when they are the victim of bullying.  Proper channels should be explored to end bullying wherever it may occur. Yet, students should also be challenged and encouraged to find strength in God and in their Christian community to endure when dealing with negative experiences from bullying.
     
  14. High Exposure to Negative Emotion - Often referred to as a “toxic situation” or person, students who are continually in such environments will be at a higher risk of wanting to end the misery of their circumstances.

    Youth leaders and parents should take care to help students discern when and how to remove themselves from the toxic environments within their control as well as develop healthy approaches to communication and coping when they are unable to escape negative exposure.
     
  15. Sleep Deprivation - Adolescents are chronically sleep deprived. Sleep problems were found to be a warning sign of worsening suicidal thoughts, according to an article on WebMD. The article suggests this is one of the first and best ways to engage with students who are at risk of suicide. "Compared to other risk factors for suicide, disturbed sleep is modifiable and highly treatable using brief, fast-acting interventions. Because sleep is something we universally experience, and we may be more willing to openly talk about it relative to our mental health, we believe its study may represent an important opportunity for suicide prevention," Bernert explained.

    When speaking with a student who appears to be at risk, begin by asking them about their sleeping habits. Youth leaders and parents may find that this is one way to engage in deeper conversation about unhealthy coping mechanisms (binge watching or eating) as well as some physical solutions that may help students find a more healthy perspective.  Most experts recommend that adolescents need 7-10 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.  One important practice is to have students sleep separate from all electronics (phones, tv, computers, video games, etc).
     
  16. Sexting - 27% of teens admit to having received a sext and 15% say they have sent a sext according to a report published in the Washington Post. The link between sexting and suicidal thoughts have been documented by numerous sources.

    Youth Leaders should take great care in speaking out against the dangers and immorality of sexting while also not demonizing those who may have made a deeply flawed decision to engage in such behavior.  Speaking to students with a bent toward forgiveness and confession, youth leaders should point to Scripture passages such as 1 Timothy 5:2 and Ephesians 5 which demonstrate the way to honor others as brothers and sisters.  Parents should be clear in speaking to their students about the dangers of sexting and establish an agreement that if a student receives a sext that they will inform their parents immediately and not share it with others.

There are many complex factors that put students at risk of suicidal behavior.  Youth leaders, parents and students should strive together to maintain open lines of communication so that everyone is working together to reduce the risk.  By taking proactive steps where possible, students can establish healthy patterns that increase their capacity to love life.

Other Posts in this Series:

LOVE LIFE: Critical Care for Students and Care Givers in a Suicide Culture

LOVE LIFE: Breaking the Code of Silence

LOVE LIFE: Engaging with Suicidal Students

LOVE LIFE: 8 Thinking Errors Common Among Suicidal Students

LOVE LIFE: Coping by Cutting - Understanding and Engaging A Student Who Is Cutting

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