There were about sixteen high school kids ranging from ninth to eleventh grades that met with the Religious School Director and another volunteer therapist from our congregation. Ivy Weitzner, our liaison from Jewish Social Services of Northern Virginia and I met with their parents, about 19 in all (some of the kids had both parents present).
Ivy and I met with the parents in the sanctuary. It was a calm and serene setting for our presentation and discussion. We shared some scary statistics about teenage suicide such that suicide is the third leading cause of death for those ages 10-24, children and particularly adolescents who suffer from depression are at much greater risk of dying by suicide than are children without depression (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999), and children who first become depressed before puberty are at risk for some form of mental disorder in adulthood. Five years ago, 1 in 25 teenagers were making suicidal attempts, today 1 in 12 teens are attempting suicide.
We talked about some common risk factors for teenage suicide:
- previous suicide attempt(s)
- History of mental disorders, particularly depression
- History of alcohol and substance abuse
- Family history of suicide or child abuse
- Feelings of hopelessness or isolation
- Loss or interpersonal conflict (problems with school or the law)
- Physical illness
- Talking or writing about suicide or death
- Giving direct verbal cues "I wish I were dead" or less direct verbal cues "You will be better off without me"
- Expressing that life is meaningless and/or isolating from family and friends
- Giving away prized possessions
- Neglecting appearance or hygiene
- Dropping out of school or other activities or groups
- Obtaining weapons (gun, knives, sharp objects) or prescription medication
- Exhibiting a sudden and unexplained improvement in mood after being depressed or withdrawn (this often signifies that the person has made the decision to end their life. Once the decision is made, the weight is lifted and the person feels a sense of relief which can translate into an unexpected euphoria)
The DVD that I talked about in detail in the original post was viewed (I tactically suggested we cut out the cheesy dramatizations and instead focus on the people that shared their real life experiences. I was even thanked by one of the parent participants for sparing her the cheese factor).
The discussion that ensued was beautiful. There were tears and fear and honesty. Parents shared about their personal experiences, their experiences with their kids and various stories about what their kids had endured be it depression, the loss of a friend or exposure to cutting (an important note that cutting is not necessarily a suicidal attempt, it can be, but it can also be an unhealthy way that one deals with emotional pain).
It was lovely to see how the group respected one another and offered compassion, or in some cases a tissue. One parent shared that he and his daughter had read the book, Willow by Julia Hoban about a girl who coped with a tragedy via cutting. Others (myself included) copied down the book information as a resource for our kids. The group felt safe, they asked amazing questions and allowed for a rich and thoughtful dialogue about such a scary and poignant topic.
The review from the teen group was that it went equally as well. I polled a couple of teens on their way out and they gave me a thumb's up. The leaders of the teens were impressed with their maturity with this difficult subject and with much of the discussion and candid responses that were shared.
One of the parents shared with me in an email that "the best part (for me) was the discussion it provoked in the car on the way home with my 16 year old daughter. Having had separate but similar sessions we were able to compare them, and this led to us talking without awkwardness. I shared about my post-natal depression, and she discussed her stress at school (nothing rising to the level of depression, thank goodness), but we both felt reassured that the door was always open between us, and that is a very valuable outcome"
We will be repeating this program at another synagogue at the end of the month. I feel honored to have the opportunity to spread such a powerful message and hopefully make a difference for those that are struggling with these mental health challenges.
As always, if there is EVER a question about someone's safety or risk of suicide the National Suicide Hotlines are available 24 hours/day 7 days/week.