Teen suicide: Prevention is contagious, too.
Teen suicide in the US continues at high rates, but the stories of lives saved often don't make headlines – and prevention experts are encouraged about progress in that direction.
Every day, 10th-grader Bridgett Marsh takes a look at her growing list of "reasons to live." Posted right next to her bed, it's a colorful jumble of names – family, teachers, friends, her cats – and some "really small things, but they matter a lot," she says. "The smell of campfire smoke ... party hats ... climbing trees."Skip to next paragraph
She began writing the list during a five-day stay at a mental-health facility. With the stress of school starting in September last year, the depression she had been feeling got worse, Bridgett says, and she was thinking about suicide. That's when she chose hospitalization.
Since then, she's gotten better, and she continues to see a psychologist monthly. She plays guitar. She writes poetry. She adds to her list a few times a week. With her asymmetrical haircut and bubbly laughter, Bridgett is a typical teenager. What's not typical is how openly she talks about her struggles.
"I've learned how sad it is that people have to hide it, and I don't want to be one of those people," Bridgett says. "Starting talking to one person helps, and the further you talk, the better it gets.... It doesn't embarrass me."
Behind every headline about teen suicide, there's a family tragedy and an even wider ripple effect. Between 1950 and 1990, the teen suicide rate in the United States nearly quadrupled. It declined somewhat through the early 2000s, but it has since plateaued and remains about triple the rate of 1950. For every death, research suggests that many more teens think about or attempt suicide, often in secret.
But the stories of lives saved often don't make headlines – and prevention experts are encouraged about progress in that direction. People like Bridgett are breaking down the taboo. Research is leading to better ways of recognizing teens in distress and connecting them with help. A clearer picture of how suicide "contagion" can happen is emerging – and prompting stronger efforts to guard against it.
Compared with 10 years ago, the proliferation of prevention efforts among young people represents "a quantum leap forward," says Ann Haas, senior director of education and prevention at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York.
But it's difficult to prove if these bring down suicide rates, she says, and "while we're working in one direction, all of a sudden something else pops up."
The prominence of the Internet, for instance, Ms. Haas adds, "where kids can get exposed to the suicidal behavior of others half a world away," was not an issue 20 years ago. "[And] we're struggling to figure out how you contain that."
One reason to be "upbeat," Haas says, is that increasingly, prevention is happening "upstream" – developing in young people more of the resilience and coping skills that keep them from reaching a crisis point.
That trend is evident here at Chautauqua Lake Central School, where Bridgett is part of a group of students and adults well prepared to respond to teens on the edge – and better yet, pick up on signs that they might be heading that direction.
Trained through the Sources of Strength suicide prevention program, these teens find creative ways to spread the idea that by turning to key supports – such as friends, mentors, mental-health services, or spiritual outlets – everyone can get through his or her down days. They create a new norm that breaks through typical teen "codes of silence" and turns more students to "trusted adults" if they or their friends are in trouble.
Three girls have told Bridgett she helped save them. One, because "I've always been there for her, no matter what," she says. Another had an eating disorder, and thought she wouldn't have survived "if it hadn't been for me saying something to an adult." And one literally said, " 'You saved my life,' 'cause I took her to guidance one day [at school] and I guess it had a big impact on her."