“Can you hear me?” How adolescents can ask for help when having suicidal thoughts
Disclaimer: this blog will discuss sensitive contents such as suicide, rape and bullying. This blog is for informational purposes only and it is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. We discuss organisations that can provide help, but we could not provide extensive lists for every geographical context.
Suicide: the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally.
Suicide is a worldwide plague, as someone takes their own life every 40 seconds and it is now the second leading cause of death for people from 15 to 29 years old and the third for 10-19-years-olds.This topic has been already broached in another Inspire the Mind blog (How can we stop suicide? By Jonny Benjamin MBE), but with this piece I would like to focus on how to seek help when you are experiencing suicidal thoughts and to address the question: which tools could an adolescent seek when feeling suicidal?
If you are an adolescent, during difficult times, have you ever felt the need to ask for help? If you are not an adolescent, share this blog to teen friends and/or family members. However, everyone can benefit from the following suicide prevention options.
Have you ever used Google to find a solution to your troubles, wishing for a magic-wand style solution?
Let’s now imagine a teen, struggling with the worst imaginable thoughts and not knowing who to talk to, especially during a difficult time — for example, these days of social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic can be really hard — friends may laugh, family may get worried or angry. So, what’s the solution?
The internet might help, social networks might help.
Let’s start by looking back to a couple of years ago…
The subject of adolescent suicide created a media firestorm in the spring of 2017, when Netflix released the American tv series 13 Reason Why (seeing Selena Gomez as the big-name executive producer) based on the story of high-school student Hannah Baker who leaves behind 13 tape records detailing why she took her own life.
I binge watched the first season in less than a few days. This is not just a teen-drama, it is aimed to the entire family. Being actively involved in adolescent mental health myself— I talked about adolescent depression in my previous blog on Inspire the Mind — I strongly believe that there is an urgent need to increase the awareness about adolescent suicide.
After the broadcasting of the show, the public opinion was completely split between those promoting it even in schools, for sensitizing teens about suicide and bullying, and those harshly criticizing the cruelty and bitterness of some scenes.
Indeed, it is quite difficult to be untouched while watching bullying and rape scenes as well as the graphic depiction of suicide in the last episode of season 1 (this scene was then deleted by the producers, but unfortunately, we — almost all — saw it). Some have criticised the series for displaying suicide as a solution to difficulties in life, describing absent parents and sloppy guidance counsellor, others appreciated the fact that suicide was taken to the forefront of public attention, together with other frequent problems faced by adolescents, such as peer pressures, sexual assault, aggressions and bullying.
Mental health groups tended to go against the series , pointing out that the show is ‘glorifying’ and ‘romanticising’ suicide, which might be a trigger for vulnerable child not coping with their struggles. The main fear is that the show might do “more harm than good” since it is not providing an alternative way out to suicide — but that suicide is actually ‘glamourized’— and little is discussed about depression and mental health as a possible cause underlying the risk for suicide.
In the United States, some high schools even sent emails to parents cautioning them about allowing teens to watch the show. Yet on the other hand, the Michigan’s Oxford High School create the initiative “13 Reason Why Not” in which students praise the people who help them. Students recorde themselves talking about their struggles or everyday problems and broadcast them over the school intercom, thanking those who helped them during difficult times.
The criticisms might be right but let’s not stop here.
The writer of the show, Nic Sheff, suffers/ed himself from suicidal thoughts, as he explained in an open letter to Vanity Fair. He explained that the idea was to let adolescents know that they are not alone, let them see the light at the end of the tunnel and to not hide a topic that is real: reality should always be faced. The aim of the show was to sensitise the public regarding suicide and this is clearly visible by the help resources provided at the end of each episode, showing that they are aware of the strong impact of the show on adolescents as well as young adults.
But how can you help yourself when you are experiencing your own troubles with suicidal thoughts?
Firstly, don’t be afraid to ask for help…
Sometimes admitting you are dealing with a problem is the hardest part. And things get even harder when you feel alone and abandoned, even if you are not. How many times have we found us facing insuperable problems? I guess too many times. But every time we ask for help, we take a massive step in fighting these struggles. Therefore, asking for help is crucial… so, how can we ask for help in the darkest moments? How can adolescents do it?
Suicide and social networks
As we all know, adolescents spend the highest amount of time social networking on so many platforms that all the grown-ups barely know — and I am saying this myself: I am 27 years old and I am surely the most into-it among my friends, but still don’t know many brand-new social networks.
A recent survey among American teenagers showed that 95% of teens (aged between 13 to 17) have a direct access to a smartphone and 45% of them are online on a near-constant basis, which means almost always. Moreover, given the increase in popularity of social media, and that their use has been classified as a risk factor for adolescent mental health — as already described in this blog on Inspire the Mind — a “mental health and suicide prevention machine” has also been activated on social networks.
Social media could be a double-edge sword: there, you can ask for help or find the trigger for precipitating further in the darkness. Adolescents themselves have pointed out the negative aspects of social networking, such as bullying and peer pressures.
Given the significant amount of time spent on social media, the funders of these virtual playgrounds have tried to go for the “suicide prevention mission”, introducing security tools as well as an algorithm for screening dangerous posts.
For example, in March 2017 in the United States, Facebook introduced the use of machine learning to expand their ability to get help to people in need. An algorithm flags a post as “dangerous” and sends it to the Facebook’s team of content moderators; in case the post’s content is concerning, it is sent to a trained team who can actively analyse the content and interact with the user. In milder cases, Facebook send the users suicide resource information, whereas in the worst cases it might ask for a wellness check, which means calling emergency responses regarding a possible suicide case. Please note: this procedure is not active in Europe due to the GDPR privacy legislation.
And what if you read something alarming while scrolling your Facebook page?
We can all report suicidal content on social media, as it is quite simple on both Facebook and Instagram.
Other social media platforms include “help centres” where everyone can easily access in order to obtain information about who call in case of emergency.
Hotlines and chats
Hotlines and chats provide direct and immediate help. Here you can talk one-to-one to real people in real-time, without being personally face to face.
In the UK, The Samaritans offers a 24-hours free hotline service as well as the possibility to write them an email (they guarantee a quick response within 24 hours). When calling the Samaritans, a volunteer picks up the phone and gives you free space to explain your problems, without any limitation. The volunteers do not judge the caller in any way but genuinely listen and give advice on what is more appropriate. The service is completely free and above all anonymous and confidential. Anyone can call, talk, cry or unload the burden.
Some users have explained that being able to talk to a Samaritan means a lot, especially considering that you can call them in the middle of the night when is not possible to wake up a friend or a relative. Moreover, we all know that sometimes it is so much easier to express our feelings to a non-judgemental stranger rather than to someone we care about and cares about us, or that we are afraid how they might judge us.
Besides the most famous ‘The Samaritans’, other valuable resources are available in UK:
- NHS offers a website for those seeking for help
- CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) offers a chat and hotlines service from 5pm to midnight
- Papyrus (Suicide Prevention Charity) offers similar service for adolescents and young adults under the age of 35
- Childline helps children and adolescents under 19 years old
- Shout (for support in a crisis): UK’s first 24/7 text service
- 999 helps you in the worst case, when you are in real danger of hurting yourself or have hurt yourselves.
Similar resources exist worldwide…
Facebooks and Instagram provide an extended list of emergency number and website for several countries and languages. Since I am working also in Italy, I am quite familiar with the Italian service Telefono Azzurro, which provides help for adolescents and children.
If you are reading this blog from other countries, please note some other examples:
- Worldwide: Befrienders
- U.S.A: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Germany: Telefonseelsorge
- Australia: Lifeline Australia
- Austria: Rat auf Draht
- Brazil: CVV
- France: S.O.S Amitié
- Nigeria: Nigeria Suicide Prevention Initiative — NSPI
- Spain: Teléfono de la Esperanza
The important thing for you to know is that the most appropriate help centre number or chat in the country you are living in is usually suggested automatically if you search “suicide” or related topics on google.
Fortunately, it is easier to reach helping sources rather than pro-suicidal forums and information. While writing this blog, I did not find any pro-suicide information, and every time I searched for suicide-related topic the first results were helping forums and useful numbers or chat.
Are we doing enough regarding suicide help awareness?
Before writing this blog, I was not aware of many of the help resources available for those struggling with suicidal thoughts. This is because I have never come across advertisement or social networks’ posts about sensibilisation and help resources. Maybe this is where we should all start, sharing help resources and paying more attention to those around us. Personally, I am also thinking about becoming a volunteer for one of the mentioned associations, like Telefono Azzurro in Italy.
In conclusion, to all of you struggling and in pain: remember you are not alone, you can ask for help, and there are plenty of ways to get better.
You got this, we got this together.