Some people may think about suicide but do not act upon it. For others, suicide seems like the only way out of their situation or the feelings they are experiencing. Suicidal thoughts and planning and actual suicide attempts are “significantly higher” in young adults (18–29) than in people over the age of 30.
Why do young people contemplate suicide? Regardless of age, it is not unusual to have thoughts that make you feel uncomfortable, that you fear at some level you will act upon. These thoughts are not uncommon among young people. It is estimated that between 22% and 38% of adolescents have thought about suicide at some point in their lives.
Life can be painful and problems can seem overwhelming at times. But most people get through it or can put their problems in perspective and find a way to carry on with determination and hope.
Young people may have cause to think about suicide if they are trying to escape feelings of rejection, hurt, or loss. For others, it might be feelings of anger, shame or guilt about something. Some young people worry about disappointing friends or family members. And some may feel unwanted, unloved, victimised, or like they’re a burden to others.
The vast majority of people who die by suicide experience some kind of psychiatric disorder (studies suggest as many as 90%), particularly depression. As many attest, depression is the core and key driver of suicidality.
Sometimes young people who are thinking about suicide may not even realise they are depressed. They’re unaware that it is the depression — not the situation — that’s influencing them to see things in a “there’s no way out,” “it will never get better,” “there’s nothing I can do” kind of way.
Yet it is important to remember that most people who are unhappy or diagnosed with depression do not hurt themselves (self-harm) or attempt suicide. But some young people are seriously affected and feel down for much of the time, finding it hard to cope from day to day. The condition affects their thoughts, mood, behaviour and health. Some choose to act on their thoughts.
Psychiatrist and author Kay Redfield Jamison says,
“Depression alone can be borne as long as there is the belief that things will improve. If that belief cracks or disappears, suicide becomes the option of choice.”
In 2013, 22 children aged 5-14 years, 72 adolescents aged 15-17 years, and 276 young people aged 18-24 years died as a result of suicide in Australia. Suicide accounted for close to one-third of deaths among 15-24 year olds.
In Missing Christopher: A Mother’s Story of Tragedy, Grief and Love, Jayne Newling shares the tragic circumstances that led to the death of her son, Christopher. Christopher was seventeen and had everything to live for. He was smart, charismatic, loving, and deeply loved, and a champion rugby player. Yet he was struggling. Diagnosed a year earlier with depression and severe anxiety, he hid his fears from family and friends.
In the days following his death, Newling came across her son’s diary. She comments, “But it was what he wrote that devastated me when I realised how sad and confused he was, how quickly he had plummeted into dark despair. He was lonely and frightened and he couldn’t reach out to anyone.”
Writing 11 years after her son’s tragic death, Newling is able to appreciate the life and death struggle that some young people have to contend with. She says,
“I understand, just a little more, why teenagers decide the interminable future is too hard to bear. Their lives are lived for each day and when each day is wracked with angst, uncertainty and a heartbreaking pain and belief that nothing will get better, death can (appear to) be their only way out.
For Christopher, life was deteriorating. His body was failing him and his tenuous hold on his mental state was plummeting into a disquieting realm which housed his greatest fear. The pain was intense and as he climbed the cliff and neared the top, there was a moment, an impulsive second, where death was desirable. For Christopher, it was easier to let go than to hold on.”
Christopher’s emotional distress and developing mental health condition was lonely and frightening. He wasn’t able to reach out and find the help he needed.
Suicidal young people are especially susceptible to help-negation – as emotional distress increases, help seeking decreases. Moreover, feelings of hopelessness, a key risk factor for suicide, are not conducive to seeking help.
Christopher had distanced himself from those who could offer support. What Christopher needed to know was that feelings of anxiety, depression and mental health conditions are common and recovery is possible.
Building connections to others and having a strong network of support can help—and so can talking. What may seem like a huge problem today can become a whole lot smaller if we can talk about it and think about dealing with it one small step at a time.
“Guard your thoughts and there will be little fear about your actions.” J.C. Ryle