By Walt Mueller
Even though it’s been several years since I saw it happen, its impact on me is still strong. I was sitting in the stands at a Good Charlotte concert with a raucous crowd of young fans. At one point in the concert, the band stood on stage and asked for the houselights to be brought up. After quieting the 10,000 teens in the room, the band calmly asked, “How many of you here have ever considered or attempted suicide yourself, or know someone who has taken their own life?” I stood in stunned silence as what looked like every hand in the room went silently and slowly up in the air. It was a powerful encounter with a dark cultural reality. Then, after the young quintet of punk rockers told the crowd that suicide is a road they should never travel, they launched into their hopeful anti-suicide anthem, “Hold On.” I had a difficult time listening as my eyes kept scanning the crowd of young people in the room.
That moment has come back to me whenever I read, hear about or discuss a teen suicide. Sadly, that’s been far too often. While there’s no way to really know just how many kids are pondering suicide, this hopeless and horrific act is the third leading cause of death among 10-24 year-olds, with 6.3% self-reporting having attempted suicide one or more times in the previous 12 months.1 In the United States, one teenager takes his or her life every 100 minutes. It’s recognized that this statistic is far too conservative as many teen suicides aren’t reported as such. What is known is that there’s been an alarming and steady rise in suicide among younger children and teens.
I don’t know Phil, but the brief story Phil told on his website offered another reality check. “My name is Phil and last year I lost my son to suicide. He was only 17. If you were like me … chances are you don’t know anything about suicide or noticing the warning signs … I know that I didn’t … but I do now. My wife and I have put this site together for both adults looking for some information on how to prevent this from happening to their children, and also for other teens looking for help.” Because I’m a father, I find Phil’s words somewhat haunting. One day his son was there. The next day he wasn’t. I can’t even imagine. For whatever reason, Phil didn’t see it coming. I’m sure Phil’s ignorance is admittedly shared by the great majority of parents who have experienced his same horror. One loving and involved Christian parent described to me what it was like for them after their 13-year-old son took his life.
The young man had endured a horrible breakup along with a change in schools before slowly getting depressed. The parent says, “We were frogs in boiling water and missed the signs of the rising temperature. No one ever thinks suicide will happen to them—we thought we were dealing with the highs and lows of a budding hormonal teen.” When you’re especially close to someone – even your own child – subtle changes that take place over time are sometimes very difficult to see. Sometimes it’s the things right under our noses that we so easily miss. This parent’s words are words we should all hear and heed. The parents deeply loved Christ and their son. They were active in his life. The signs were there. But still they were missed.
One of the most memorable moments of the 1992 Summer Olympics occurred when Britain’s Derek Redmond was sprinting around the track in the 400-meter run. As Redmond sped around the backstretch, his right hamstring tore. How did you and I know he was hurt? He showed us. He stopped running, limped a few steps and fell to the ground. His face contorted in response to the physical pain he was feeling. He grabbed his leg and rolled around on the ground. Those who were in close proximity heard him scream out in agony. We knew he was hurt because he told us not in words but through his actions. His physical pain was obvious to anyone who was watching.
Teenagers who attempt suicide give signs, some of them extremely subtle. About 80 percent of those who take their lives communicate their intention to someone prior to the act. While they may not always communicate their pain and intentions with verbal clarity, the signs are there. But they may never be heard unless we know what to watch for. Experts say there are five categories of signs teens give when contemplating or before attempting/committing suicide. No, they’re not all there all the time. But some signs will most likely be present. Carefully read through the descriptions of these signs, realizing that they will usually appear in some combination before a teenager acts on their thoughts.