Sensitive Conversations with Teens: Depression and Suicide

By Sammie Franks, Creator of Abundant Life: You Were Made for More

Every 40 seconds, someone dies by suicide.

Depression is defined as a mental health disorder characterized by persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, which causes significant impairment in daily life and extremely affects the sufferer’s ability to function. Statistically, depression affects about 20% of adolescents by the time they become adults.

Why do I mention this statistic? Because untreated depression is the leading cause of suicide, especially in teens and young adults.

A new study led by Vanderbilt University (Pediatrics) reports that the number of  school-age children and adolescents hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or attempts has doubled from 2008 to 2015. More than half were youth between the ages of 15-17, followed by those between the ages of 12-14 (37 percent) and those ranging in ages from 5-11 (nearly 13 percent).

All told, suicide takes more student’s lives than automobile accidents.

But there’s more. The study also found two-thirds of children hospitalized for thinking about or trying to kill themselves were girls. But, as we’ve seen with alarming frequency in national incidents of school gun violence, boys are more likely to die by suicide.

This is a crisis in which adults — parents, family members, medical professionals, school officials, clergy, and others — must intervene bravely and immediately. We’ve known this for years, yet I’m still afraid that we haven’t gotten to the root of the problem.

As a youth leader in the Church, I’ve talked to students who don’t know anything else other than struggles with depression. Clinical depression is a hidden disability – it leeches all light from life but does so without visible scars. It’s easy to cover, and I personally know people whom are experts at hiding their depression in public, while, in the privacy of their own homes, they’re nothing like the people I once knew. Unfortunately, many people who share their struggle within their church communities have been told to “pray harder” or “have more faith.”

I know – that’s shocking to me, too, but the reality is that some people misunderstand depression, thinking that it’s a conscious choice. I’m here to stand with those struggling, advocating for the fact that these suggestions (like “pray harder” or “have more faith”) might be well-intentioned, but they often discourage and isolate those of us in desperate need of support.

I want to be a Christian known for meeting people in their questions, for meeting people in their pain: willing to show up and sit in silence or willing to cry with someone when they don’t know who else will.

Parental Awareness & Involvement

“What were you thinking?!?”

Perhaps you can remember your parents asking you that question on several occasions after your teenage-self had engaged in some kind of ridiculous behavior. In today’s world, we need to ask the same question – only perhaps with a more compassionate tone, as our kids navigate the pressure and stress-filled landscape of adolescence in today’s youth culture.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is reporting that there is a huge and growing gap in awareness between parents and their children who have thoughts of self-harm. About half of parents whose children have suicidal thoughts are unaware that their children are having these thoughts, and seventy-five percent are unaware that their children are having recurrent thoughts of death. Parents, our kids need us to be aware of what’s going on in their lives. This begins with fostering a culture of openness built on relationship. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And always point your kids to the One who calls us to cast our cares and burdens on Him.

And to the student who actually is struggling with suicidal thoughts: when somebody (even your parents) who cares about you asks you if you are okay, and how you are doing, answer them honestly – open up, because it has the opportunity to change the course of your thinking and could ultimately save your life.

The Media & Depression

You’ve seen the headlines about the effects of social media on your kids. Social media has transformed students into creatures craving one thing: connectivity & relationship. How did social isolation become such a disturbing trend? And how can the Church respond to the loneliness epidemic?

Community in the west is in a sharp decline, and radical individualism has become the functional status for even the most devoted churchgoers. This radical individualism has endangered unprecedented social isolation and yielded a depth of loneliness unique to 21st century American culture. This is troubling because we’re relational beings – a reality long affirmed by Christian theology but now also supported by neuroscience. By understanding ourselves as social beings, we can regain social connectedness, friendship, and community in the Church and the world.

Earlier this year, a 20,000 person Cigna study based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale revealed that those aged 18 to 22 identified with loneliness at a significantly higher rate than those 22 and older. But this study only confirmed what researchers had already discovered: we’re a lonely nation, and the loneliness factor goes up as age goes down.

The former surgeon general says that loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. If that’s not proof that we were created, designed, and made in the image of our relational God I don’t know what is!

If we really look at the root of many problems, including this one, we could argue that you could trace its roots back to a lonely heart (i.e. the pornography epidemic).

This is what I want parents, youth leaders, and students to hear: youth group offers an alternative to the cultural norm that many kids experience. If it’s done well, in true community, students acquire a frequency of local interaction that’s becoming an increasingly rare one.

Here’s the Truth: Jesus perfectly models what being in-relationship should be. He was never not in relationship. He entered this world not by splitting the heavens, but by gently growing in His mother’s womb. He entered a normal family, spent His childhood and early adulthood in obscurity, and then launched his ministry by inviting others to join Him. Even on the eve of His crucifixion, He made time for a meal with disciples, then led them to pray with Him at Gethsemane. With His final breaths, He instructed His disciples to care for His mother.

His life and mission remind us that even He refused to live in isolation. If relationships were essential to Jesus, shouldn’t they be for us, too?

“The Loneliest Generation”

We’re busy but disconnected. Our relationships appear to be substantial, but superficial frequent social media use either has no effect or a negative effect on loneliness. Our brains and hearts claim to be overwhelmed, but we’re painfully lonely. So how do we fight off isolation in a lonely world? How does God come to us in our loneliness? And where does the local church factor in?

If we look at the Bible, we see that loneliness isn’t new, and God’s redemption includes salvation from its deepest form – isolation from God and His people. God is our Father, our defender, and our liberator. He liberates us from the prison of loneliness, into the family of Christ.

Here’s the other Truth: belonging – not personal freedom or self-esteem or meaningful work or marriage and kids – is the most fundamental human need beyond food and shelter. Articles have come out in the recent years by youth ministry sources stating that youth pastors should be more worried about this epidemic in students than any other. Loneliness, lack of relationships, and surface-level connection are real threats to our kids.

Loneliness and Rejection

We’ve all been there. And if you haven’t yet, you undoubtedly will be. Our hearts feel pain so very deeply. Interestingly enough, tests have shown that the parts of our brain that light up in response to rejection also light up when we experience physical pain. Rejection can cause intense feelings of loneliness, despair, and cause us to question the goodness of God. Sometimes we look for affirmation and acceptance in all the wrong places, and other times, even when we have good intentions, we miss the mark.

Even if we know what Jesus says about us, it’s still more than likely we will feel things like rejection and loneliness. We still feel the weight of what other people think about us and what they say about us, or the lack thereof. We still yearn to be loved, and when we aren’t, at times, it can feel like we are being crushed to a point that we can never come back from. When we feel like we don’t belong, where do we go?

Think about why it hurts so much when other people say or do things that make you feel unwanted. Isn’t it in part due to the fact they just voiced some vulnerability or insecurity that you’ve already berated yourself for? It hurts exponentially more when you’re kicked in an already bruised shin. When someone else affirms the lies you believe about yourself, it starts a dangerous, downward spiral of believing that those lies, emotions, and feelings are the truth. If you’re honest, maybe that’s where you’re living today.

Let me stop here and say this: no one, and I mean no one, is immune to feelings of depression, anxiety, rejection, loneliness, or suicidal thoughts. No one. Take out your phone, lay down your pride, and before we go any further, type these numbers into your contacts. Some of you will need it personally, and some of you will need it to help a friend. None of us are above or beyond the reach of lies taking root in our souls. That’s Satan’s primary goal – to make you believe that you are in fact alone and worthless.

  • National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255
  • Youth Pastor Email or Phone (if you’re reading this article and you’re a youth pastor, give your kids permission to call you – if they trust you, that could save their life).

This is what you need to know. There is hope – but in order to move toward that hope, you must move away from the lies. There are so many lies that Satan is working to try and get you to believe.

Lie #1: That nobody cares. I can tell you that that’s certainly not true, because all over the world, there are people fighting for you. Everything you hate about yourself, everything you struggle with, every trauma that has happened to you or has been done to you, Jesus took it upon Himself – and then He went to the next person, and the next, and did the same thing – over and over again.

Lie #2: Suicide will end the pain. That’s a lie – and maybe you’re having similar thoughts to the main character of the Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, Hannah Baker. She had convinced herself that nobody really cared, so her death would end her pain. We clearly see through viewing the show that that wasn’t the case; the people in Hannah’s life suffer greatly from her death. The pain she is feeling is only magnified and spread to the people that loved her. If you die, your pain transfers from you to the people that love you.

And lie #3: Things won’t change. Once again, what a trap this is. Emotions and feelings will always change. They are meant to. They won’t last forever! Suicide is often an impulsive yet permanent and irreversible attempt to deal with unbearable, yet temporary, pain. You don’t have to end your life to end your pain. Your pain can end by simply letting someone know you, and I mean really know you. Let them into your pain, let them walk through it with you, and let them speak Truth over the lies you’re believing about yourself.

In his book, Why People Die by Suicide, Dr. Thomas E. Joiner, a psychology professor at Florida State University, attributes the desire to die by suicide to two things:

1. A disconnection from others, or

2. The perception of being a burden, of having more worth dead than alive.

If you’ve bought into these lies, you need to know that Jesus changes everything. So much so that there will be a day with no pain – the Bible talks about it. There will be a new day, and the pain we now know will be gone forever. That is hope, my friends.

To one who thinks there is no way out, there is. To one who thinks that no one cares, we do. To the one who thinks there is no hope, see the hope in Jesus. To the one who is scared to get help, to let someone in or to let someone know you, run toward them anyway. The darkness of night never lasts forever. Wait for the light that always comes. I promise that the God who has been faithful to me will also be faithful to you.

So, What Can We Do?

For parents, here are some practical steps to monitoring your child’s mental health and the possibility of suicidal behavior:

  • Have a conversation with your child about suicide (specifically about what the Bible teaches about suffering).
  • Spend more time with them in general – go on walks with them or bring them with you to run errands. Psychologists have found that 30 minutes, 3 times a week, can have a huge effect.
  • Give your children tasks around the home and tell them how valuable their help is.
  • Limit screen time and communicate those expectations in advance, issuing a reminder beforehand to avoid meltdowns with little ones.
  • Monitor their social media every day. You probably bought the phone, so it’s important to realize that checking in on their habits and screen time is not an invasion of privacy. Here’s an article that dives into this topic more!
  • Designate a central charging station in your home and insist your children surrender and plug-in their devices well before bed-time – and practice what you preach to them by doing it yourself! I guarantee this will help with sleep patterns and formation, too.

If you get nothing else out of this article, I hope that you get this: You are who He says you are, despite how you feel. God isn’t EVER going to forsake you – but He will go to great lengths to remake you.

Take the time today and share that Truth with someone that you love!

The Lord Himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.

Deuteronomy 31:8

*Some excerpts in this blog were taken from Module 2, Teaching 3 – Uninvited: Loneliness and Rejection of Abundant Life: You Were Made for More. Visit youweremadeformore.org/curriculum to get yours today!

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