So you know your teen is being bullied, but do you know the signs that he or she is planning a suicide attempt?
You may think that suicide success in teenagers (and adolescents) is too rare to worry about. And it’s true: A completed suicide in bullied teens is exceedingly rare (though strikingly newsworthy). However…the ATTEMPT is alarmingly common! Why would your bullied teenager be an exception?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, during 2013 for kids grades 9-12: Seventeen percent seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months; 13.6 percent made a plan for the attempt; 8 percent actually attempted suicide at least once in the prior 12 months.
So your teen is being bullied. Are you sure they won’t attempt suicide? In life, can you be sure of anything, even the sun rising tomorrow? Of course not. But there are signs to look for that can indicate that your bullied child is seriously contemplating a suicide attempt—to the point of planning on where, how and when.
How can a parent tell if their bullied teen or younger child may attempt suicide?
“They feel the whole world is against them and don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” begins Carole Lieberman, MD, a forensic psychiatrist, expert on bullying and author of Bad Boys: How We Love Them, How to Live with Them, When to Leave Them.
“The kids who are more likely to go beyond moodiness and depression, and actually commit suicide, are those who feel the least support from their parents, and who have nothing positive to hold onto—no space in their life where the bullying isn’t affecting their success.”
The tricky thing here is that parents may actually believe they’re being super supportive, when in fact, they’re (unintentionally) adding to the feelings of hopelessness.
For example, a child expresses suicidal ideations to his father. The father becomes irate at this and snaps, “Oh come ON, you have so many good things going for you! I bet if you wrote down all the bad things in your life, and all the good things, you’d see that the list of good things was way longer!” Dad then returns to his computer activities while Junior is left trembling.
In his mind, Dad is being supportive. But the truth is, he just added to the teen’s feelings of hopelessness. Feelings of hopelessness cannot be quantitated on a list. A built-in pool in the backyard, having one’s own bedroom and 10-speed bicycle, a giant flat screen TV, computer and smartphone, a Game Boy and all sorts of other material possessions, translate to featherweight against the superheavyweight bullying that occurs at school and Dad’s disgraceful attitude.
So on that boy’s list are 15 “good” things and one “bad” thing (bullying). But that one thing, the bullying, is a brick on the scale, making the 15 good things weigh as much as sawdust.
Parents might think their bullied child would never attempt suicide because he or she doesn’t act depressed. This is another tricky area, because the classic signs of major depression include a nearly complete loss of appetite (sometimes to the point of regurgitating attempts to eat), excessive time spent in bed, excessive time spent sitting and staring into space, and being non-conversational and more like a zombie.
So a parent might think that their bullied child, who has a good appetite and is highly functional, would never attempt suicide. Then one day it happens, as was the case of Michael Morones. At age 11 he hung himself, fed up with the bullying by classmates. But he survived and exists in a minimally conscious state, at best.
So don’t assume that the absence of classic depression symptoms means your bullied teen or child is in the clear from a suicide attempt. It may not even be depression, per se, that fuels the suicidal thoughts. Feelings of hopelessness and seeing no way out are thought processes that don’t always add up to the classic presentation of severe depression in which the victim is in bed all day and rapidly losing weight.
Other signs your bullied child might try suicide:
Giving away of prized possessions
Talking or writing about suicide
Googling ways to commit suicide or information on overdosing on drugs
A sudden, unexplainable cheerful disposition (signaling happiness over discovering a solution to all the bullying: suicide)
Criticism from family members, e.g., overly-critical parents; siblings who ridicule or exclude the child
Child being unable to open up to the parents (signaling that the parents’ responses at these attempts to communicate are harsh and judgmental)
Another sign is the absence of a sanctuary—an environment in which bullying cannot survive, such as a top-notch martial arts school, where kids and adults of all abilities and disabilities are graciously accepted.
Don’t be a “not MY kid” parent. You may think you don’t know what more you can do for your child who suffers from bullying, but if that child died by suicide—rest assured, you’d suddenly know all the things you COULD have done to prevent this. So get to work NOW before your child beats you to it. Dr. Lieberman offers courses of action in Part II.