One of the criticisms of the popular Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, and the recent media attention for the trial of Michelle Carter and the “texting suicide” case is that the discussion or depiction has often left out or minimized the role of mental health disorders, sometimes undiagnosed or untreated, in suicide amongst teenagers. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, it is estimated that 90% of teens or adults who complete suicide have a diagnosable mental health disorder. This includes clinical depression and anxiety, disorders related to trauma experiences such as PTSD, bipolar and substance abuse disorders. Although examining the topic of teen suicide can be disturbing, mental health disorders are treatable and parents can recognize the signs and intervene early to prevent tragic consequences.
Warning Signs and Risk Factors that could suggest a mental health disorder and higher risk of suicide:
-Significant changes in functioning, including isolation or sudden increased energy, changes in eating/sleeping patterns, declines in hygiene, inability to complete tasks, emotional numbing or frequent tearfulness/hopelessness, increased aggression/anger
-History of traumatic events, such as sexual assault or rape, physical abuse, intimate partner violence
-Increased alcohol or drug use
-Primacy of or inability to disconnect from social media use. Studies have shown that negative experiences online (such as cyberbullying) or use of multiple social media platforms can be risk factors for increased depressive symptoms
-Trauma symptoms such as avoidance, numbing, flashbacks, nightmares
-Verbalizations of suicidal ideation, such as “I wish I wasn’t here” or “I want to die”
-Preoccupation with death in writing, art, music or conversation
Strategies for suicide prevention and treatment of mental health disorders:
-Seek mental health assessment or therapy. In my practice, I have specialized training in Dialectical Behavior therapy, which has shown to be effective in reducing suicide attempts and self-harming behaviors, in addition to expertise in treating complex trauma.
-Involve other systems, including education, medical, community, family, and friends to aid in support and prevention
-Address appropriate social media use and set structure that promotes balance and interests/activities in real life
-Don’t minimize the developmental importance of interpersonal relationships and the impact of relational aggression, bullying, relationship transitions, or break-ups to exacerbate mental health symptoms or increase risks of suicide
-Seek to know who is important in your teen’s life, demonstrate curiosity and openness about these relationships
-Be aware of how developmental or family transitions or changes can influence or exacerbate existing risk factors and consider family therapy, which can also be an effective treatment for severe mental health disorders
-Have open dialogue about self harm, suicide, and how to seek help
-For high risk teens, monitor access to means
-In a crisis, call 911 or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255)
Contact Carrie Johnson, MFT to learn more or to schedule a free phone consultation, 415 894 2766 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
“Suicide and Prevention.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/suicide.
Zagorski, Nick. “Using Many Social Media Platforms Linked With Depression, Anxiety Risk.”Psychiatric News, vol. 52, no. 2, 2017, pp. 1–1., doi:10.1176/appi.pn.2017.1b16.