This is a post I wrote for Focus on the Family earlier this year. Link with text beneath.
A Teen Suicide Attempt Can Rock the Whole Family
I am an emergency medicine physician. And among the many difficult situations that we face in emergency departments are suicide attempts. My training was meant to prepare me for the medical consequences of events like these. I can manage lacerations and gunshot wounds, overdoses, assorted injuries, and illnesses. I then consult the appropriate doctors to admit the patient for medical care, or to asses the patient’s mental health and arrange admission to a psychiatric hospital.
However, a suicide attempt, especially in a child or adolescent, represents much more than a medical problem. It represents a young person in crisis, someone who’s desperate enough to make a powerful cry for help. It also shows an equally desperate attempt to permanently end the turmoil inside their minds.
Parents are often shocked that their children would do something so drastic. Even those who know that their children have mental health issues can be blindsided when a beloved son or daughter engages in self-harm with an intent to kill. And yet, it’s remarkable that we are surprised when our children, in a complex and difficult world, can suffer from inner sorrow.
The Bible is full of verses about sorrow and heavy hearts. Psalm 34:18 says “The LORD is near to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” The fact that God is near to them suggests that their broken-heartedness is very real, to them and to Him. Isaiah 53:4a reminds us of Jesus, saying, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore and our sorrows He carried.” The Son of God recognizes our sorrows and griefs. He places no limit on the age at which those things can come.
Reasons Why Teens Might Attempt Suicide
Kids Are Impetuous
Certainly, young people are impetuous and can sometimes do very dangerous things without much thought. They don’t have the perspective of years, and sometimes they have no real understanding of the permanence of their actions. However, parents need to remember that it often takes young people a significant amount of time, and a remarkable amount of inner pain, to actually move forward with a plan to attempt suicide.
Because this is true, it’s easy for parents or family friends to minimize an attempt by saying that their child “is just trying to get attention.” We say that as if it’s insignificant. And yet, as my own teenage daughter pointed out, we all want and need attention. In a world full of distractions and troubles, young people need to know that they are valuable enough to “get the attention” of those who love them.
Since it can be hard for them to speak about their own pain, they may see an overdose, laceration or some other attempt as a worthwhile way to bring the focus of their loved ones and social group back to their own personal problems.
Deserving of Attention
In fact, we are deserving of attention. The Bible makes it clear that we are deserving of the attention of the God of the universe. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, said in Luke 19:10, “The son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” The Apostle Paul, in Romans 8:38, said, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Both of these passages are striking reminders that we have God’s attention and he intended it that way. Since parents are meant to teach their children about God, we must give those hurting children all the attention they need in their time of pain. We must ultimately remind them of their worth to the heavenly Father as well.
Click here to learn more about the signs that your child may be planning a suicide attempt. Knowing the signs can prevent a suicide attempt.
Handling the Crisis
This Teen in Crisis Needs You Desperately
Parents should, therefore, try their best to suppress anger at the attempt. They should realize that this child or teen, in crisis, needs them desperately. And that means they need you when you discover the attempt. They need you as they are being taken to the hospital. And they need you throughout their time in medical or psychiatric care and beyond.
From my own experience with the initial phases of these events, I know that parents are terrified and upset. They sometimes ask, “What were you thinking?” Or, “Why did you do this?” Christian parents may feel compelled to remind their suicidal children that suicide is a sin; and no doubt it is. However, any young person sufficiently afflicted to attempt, or appear to attempt suicide, may not initially respond to that reminder. What is needed, and what will continue to be needed for some time, is a simple statement: “We love you and we’re here for you.”
Address the Emergency First
At first, there will be a kind of parental soul-searching. Everyone will try to figure out why the attempt happened and why the child felt it was necessary at all. During that time, it’s useful simply to focus on the medical event at hand and on the stabilization necessary. This might include closure of a self-inflicted laceration or use of charcoal or a tube to empty stomach contents. In some instances, it means management in an intensive care unit.
Once these issues have been navigated, and the “dust has settled,” then parents can work with their child alongside a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist to discern what led to the attempt. Parents can also then work to figure out to what extent further attempts are likely and how to solve the issues at hand. They can also look into whether depression, social crisis, addiction, abuse, bullying or some other problem the child is facing played a role.
Stop the Blame Game
Another thing that can occur, and even more so in families where there are marital difficulties, is accusation and blame. “He wouldn’t have done this if you had been there.” Or, “She would never have done this if things hadn’t been that way!”
These charges will not solve the issues at hand; and they should not be communicated in the presence of the hurting child. The child does not need a fresh reminder of family chaos during his or her own medical and psychiatric crisis. This is a good time to remember the scriptural injunction in James 1:20: “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness that God desires.”
A suicide attempt also afflicts more than the parents and child. Siblings can be rocked by this and can even try to copy the behavior of their brother or sister. They need attention as well, and to be kept safe. They will also require reassurance that there is hope for the future.
Siblings should be advised that it may take time. They should know that they and their hurting brother or sister are loved as much as ever. Sometimes, a sibling can be a source of comfort to a hurting child. That child may talk to their brother or sister when they may not to their parents.
Impact on Extended Family and Friends
Likewise, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and fellow church members will hear and be affected. But parents should feel no compulsion to share intimate details. A firm statement such as, “Our child is having some personal issues right now and we appreciate your concern,” is all that parents need to say to anyone else during this time.
No Talk of Failure
Parents should offer, as much as possible, to participate in the mental health care of their children. They can do this by going to counseling with them. They can also ensure that after discharge they keep appointments and take prescribed medications.
There is no shame, and no reason to feel as if there was “failure” on the part of parent or child when these things occur. Furthermore, the recovery from a suicide attempt can take a long time, sometimes from a medical standpoint and often from the perspective of mental health.
Moving Toward Healing
God is Faithful and Forgiving
Children and adolescents should also be offered the encouragement of faith if they are receptive. They should be reminded over and over of the incredible love of Godg and also the forgivingness of God. Even kids with a deep faith can fall into depression and can spiral down into suicidal behavior.
But God is faithful and will not abandon them. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” No suicidal thought or attempt, however serious, can be sufficient to deprive anyone of God’s mercy.
Healing Can Happen
Few things are as traumatic to parents as their child’s suicide attempt. Parents need to remember to care for all members of the family and for one another, in love and without anger or blame. However, by remembering the child’s need for attention, love and acceptance, healing can occur in time, even if we can’t seem to understand it all.
Finally, however dark the days may seem, remember the words of Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.’’
© 2020 by Dr. Edwin Leap. All rights reserved.