Teen Suicide and ‘End of the World’ Anxieties

Isabel Taylor was 16 when she hung herself in her bedroom one afternoon last September.  She was a vegan, a  Buddhist, and had just started studying animal science and management at Wiltshire College in England.  She  ran a guinea pig sanctuary, and was a passionate animal rights campaigner. Isabel was opposed to animal testing,  poor management of livestock and abuses in dairy farming.   She was, according to reports fed up with the ‘complications and injustice’ of [the] advanced world.

Her parents were quoted as saying:  ”The simple and perfect world she sought, where all living things would be treated with … equality, was never going to materialize.“  Yet, when British investigators looked into the matter, news reports concluded that she hung herself after reading 15-20 internet pages in 2011, with a friend, on “all different types of things which could make the world end.”

This is the second such story I have heard since starting this blog.  The first, Tasman McGee, from Australia. Tasman had learned about peak oil in 2005, and, according to Brian Kaller, “read Michael Ruppert’s works, and became more and more convinced that everything that lay ahead of him would be a desperate and despairing future in which most people would die. After he had studied peak oil obsessively for a year, he vanished, two years ago today. Only when his parents went through his computer files did they discover his interest in peak oil. His body was found two months later. He was 19.”

It is curious to note that the newspapers didn’t conclude that agribusiness practices, or a deteriorating world environment, or economic collapse impacted Isabel so dramatically, that she had become deeply depressed and despondent to the point of taking her own life.

Isabel’s father knew of her concerns about the world ending in 2012. “She would mention it around the dinner table. We would take it on board and say we didn’t think that was going to happen Isabel, and try to make light of it and move conversation onwards.”  Isabel apparently took the hint that “doomsday scenarios” were not appropriate dinner conversation, and stopped sharing her concerns.  Her father concluded that the:  ”outwardly happy, bubbly Isabel we knew and loved so well was what she portrayed to us until the end.

I could talk now about the dangers of teenage depression and suicide, and I will in a bit.  But first I want to discuss a different set of facts.

Tasman McGee was never far from my mind, when I first learned about him in September of 2008. I started my website and blog, in May of 2006, but it took a while before members of the Peak Oil community noticed my writing. During that same time, Tasman, unlike Isabel, had again, according to Kaller, “became withdrawn and depressed, making cryptic references to a dark future.  Apparently he made oblique references to his concerns to one of his professors, but the professor was not familiar with peak oil.” Then, in December 2006, he left a suicide note and disappeared into the forest.  I have been haunted by the question of whether Tasman might be alive today if he contributed his story, as so many other college students had to me that year, or read their stories himself.  Perhaps if he had, today he’d be a 25 year old “planet fighter,” young, strong, and fearlessly working for a better future.

A No Tolerance Policy

I Googled the story about Isabel, and was disgusted to see a number of cruel, angry and insensitive comments about her death in various chatrooms.  I’d suggest that as a community, we hold a ‘no tolerance policy’ toward posts that respond to the hopelessness of others with taunts of “Go ahead, kill yourself!”  I consider such behavior bullying and sadistic. Some may call it censorship.  I call it “being humane” to someone in anguish who’s future just got shattered.

To Our Emerging Adults and Parents

I  want to emphasize how important it is for parents to take the concerns of thoughtful, intelligent young people into consideration when they bring up their fears of the future.  If you’re one of those teens or young adults, bring this piece to your parents, an invested caretaker, or the parents of someone you love.  And if you meet any of the profile of suicidal behavior I describe at the end, please, please, get help.  We need you.  Every single one of you.

Things you can do as a parent:

Remain confident that your family will weather whatever happens.

Your family is a tribe, and that feeling of “belonging” is a reason for hanging in, whatever happens.  Relationships keeps people going.  In fact, I would argue, it is what lifts depression, and makes life worth living.  Assure your children that you will do everything you can to keep them safe. If your family isn’t getting along, tell them “this too, shall pass” and the time will come, in the future, when you will be a great source of help and support for each other.  Even if you are at each other’s throats now.

Studies repeatedly show that what is important in modulating children’s anxiety is not the level of danger they face, but the confidence their parents display.  When huddled into a London air raid shelter, with bombs all around them, kids did best when the answer to “Will we die, Mum?” is “No, love, we’re tough, and they can’t kill us!”  Of course these sorts of reassurances were meaningless, but they made a difference.  Families who were much safer in the countryside were more likely to have children with anxiety disorders, if the adults fretted constantly about their safety.

Don’t emphasize one doomsday scenario over another.

Oh, I wouldn’t worry about 2012, honey, the real danger is running out of water and soil.  I’d prefer a quick death over the slow, painful one we’ll be facing...”  Maybe that will make you feel better, but it will do very little to alleviate the concerns your child is expressing and worried about.

Understand your child’s developmental challenges.

Children of different ages have different fears and concerns.  Here is a list of common childhood fears and the ages when they are likely to emerge, from Purdue University.

Show interest and provide more attention.

Ask to see the article that concerns them, or watch the TV show.  Help them to examine all sides.  Help them look more deeply into the science behind it, and explore ways to mitigate the impact.  Hang out with them more during this time, and run errands with them.  Have more good times, too, laughing, being silly, hugging more.  Increase your fun time to decrease their worry time.

Talk about the future.

If you think bad things are coming, take active, positive steps that your child can see and participate in.  Talk to them about what you are doing, and why, as well as the positive feelings you have about doing it.  Lay out a 1, 2, 5, or 10 year plan.  Help them see that you are working toward a more sustainable, resilient future, one that is, for them, worth maturing into.

Start, maintain, or enhance the bedtime ritual.

For Pete’s sake, shut off all the electronic entertainment devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime.  The screen light has been shown to disturb the ability to fall asleep.  If you have small children, teach them how to engage in relaxing, calming rituals that lead to feeling sleepy and ready for bed.  When children, and even teens, are alone in their beds, this is often the time when their worst fears surface. Nasty creatures start living under the bed or in the closets.  All the fears of the day start flooding back.

Read fun books, or ones that focus on children or young adults mastering difficult situations.  Everyone loves to be read to, at all ages, if the book is interesting and fun to listen to.  Talk to your child about the message in the story, or some interesting detail, to leave a positive thought or idea.

Teach Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), also called Jacobsonian Relaxation, after the man who invented it.  I used to teach these techniques in a Behavioral Medicine Program, but you don’t need a doctoral degree to learn, teach, or practice them.  You just need 15-20 minutes, and you may find that it becomes a family bedtime ritual you all enjoy.

Help them discover how their minds work.  After PMR, encourage them to conjure up a favorite, safe place they remember from their past, or help them to create one, if they can’t think of one.  Allow that image to be rich in sensory detail,-color, smell, and feel.  This can be the memory they can return to, time and time again, even when you aren’t there to be with them.  Don’t forget a goodnight kiss!

Book about me.

ReadWriteThink has an interesting exercise often done by my pre-doctoral psychology Interns with children in my clinic. Children develop a firmer sense of who they are, and increase their sense of belonging by doing these types of exercises with supportive adults. If they can see how much they’ve developed from earlier years, you can both imagine together how they will look as they grow years from now. Instant future.

If nothing else works…

Don’t be reluctant to involve another adult as a “big brother/sister” or hire a therapist and a mentor.  If the child won’t talk about their fears with you, even when you give them the time and space to do so, they sometimes feel safer to do so with others.  Be sure, if you hire a therapist, that they have experience working with children and managing children’s anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Suicide

Suicide rates in the United States are highest in the spring, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24, and the fourth leading cause of death for children between the ages of 10 and 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Australia, suicide is second only to motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death for people aged 15–24.  Despite this, even after a year, only 16 percent of teens with suicidal thoughts received services in the US, according to one study, despite having insurance, and relatively small co-pays.

Warning Signs of Suicide

There are many signs of suicide, but an important thing to remember is that people don’t talk about killing themselves, or wanting to die unless they need help.  They often look for ways to hurt themselves, as Isabelle did, by researching how much of a particular drug is fatal.  Listen for talk about feeling hopeless, trapped, in unbearable pain, or having no reason to live.  Teens can become increasingly anxious, agitated, behave recklessly, or with increasing belligerence. They may use drugs or alcohol, sleep too little, or too much, and seem withdrawn, listless, isolated, or rageful.  They may give away, or stop caring for things that they once valued.  They may ask for the telephone numbers or addresses of relatives they haven’t spoken to in a while to “check in” and then say “goodbye” to them.  Take these signs seriously.

Know What to Do

Here are some suggestions from SAVE.  Visit their website for more details:

Stigma associated with mental illnesses can prevent families from getting help. Your willingness to talk about mental or emotional issues and suicide with a friend, family member, or co-worker can be the first step in getting them help and preventing suicide.

If You See the Warning Signs of Suicide…

Begin a dialogue by asking questions. Suicidal thoughts are common with some mental illnesses and your willingness to talk about it in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way can be the help a person needs to seeking professional help. Questions okay to ask:

“Do you ever feel so badly that you think about suicide?”
“Do you have a plan to commit suicide or take your life?”
“Have you thought about when you would do it (today, tomorrow, next week)?”
“Have you thought about what method you would use?”
Asking these questions will help you to determine if your friend or family members is in immediate danger, and get help if needed. A suicidal person should see a doctor or mental health professional immediately. Calling 911 or going to a hospital emergency room are also good options to prevent a tragic suicide attempt or death. Calling the National Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is also a resource for you or the person you care about for help. Remember, always take thoughts of or plans for suicide seriously.

Never keep a plan for suicide a secret. Don’t worry about risking a friendship if you truly feel a life is in danger. You have bigger things to worry about-someone’s life might be in danger! It is better to lose a relationship from violating a confidence than it is to go to a funeral. And most of the time they will come back and thank you for saving their life.

Don’t try to minimize problems, or shame a person into changing their mind. Your opinion of a person’s situation is irrelevant. Trying to convince a person suffering with a mental illness that it’s not that bad, or that they have everything to live for may only increase their feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Reassure them that help is available, that what they are experiencing is treatable, and that suicidal feelings are temporary. Life can get better!

If you feel the person isn’t in immediate danger, acknowledge the pain as legitimate, and offer to work together to get help. Make sure you follow through. This is one instance where you must be tenacious in your follow-up. Help find a doctor or a mental health professional, participate in making the first phone call, or go along to the first appointment. If you’re in a position to help, don’t assume that your persistence is unwanted or intrusive. Risking your feelings to help save a life is a risk worth taking.

Resources:

http://www.save.org/

In an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).