20 seconds! In 2019, the WHO predicted that there would be one suicide every 20 seconds for the year 2020. Prior to that, the reports had been one every 40 seconds. At that time, it was close to one million deaths per year, with the new prediction and the COVID-19 pandemics, that number is likely more than doubled. We shall, however, never truly know as suicides globally, are largely under-reported.
*In this paper, we shall examine youth suicide, and try to understand why our kids kill themselves. In the end, I will share 3 things you can do to help end its pandemic (no pun intended). Let me first state that this paper might trigger strong emotions in some of us.
That said, people ask me all the time, why I became a pediatrician. And I tell them it’s simple, “I love kids”.Then I had kids and realized that I could not protect my children from childhood trauma; not their parents’ divorce, the effects of the domestic abuse their mother endured, and certainly, not from who I am as a result of my own childhood trauma.
Most people who look at me on the surface will never guess that when I was only 9, I was lured into a cornfield by a“friendly” adult neighbor. I remember being pushed onto the ground and him laying on top of me. I can still feel the grass and leaves scratching my skin, the smell of raw corn, the grittiness of sand in my mouth and between my teeth as I screamed, and no sound came out.
I have never told anyone about that day, not until now. Like most adults, I am largely SILENT about the traumas that I have endured: like my daily bullying on the elementary school bus when I was 7, bullying by high school seniors, or my rape in medical school.
But, one cold Sunday morning in November of 2015, while on antidepressants, I swear the ghosts of all my traumas-past were chasing me down a highway in San Antonio Texas! I was going at over 85mph, my thoughts and my heart were racing just as fast, the rooftop of my convertible was down, I had no seatbelt on…I was looking for an opening… I was going togoseeGod!
Have you ever heard about Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACES a.k.a Childhood Trauma?
In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente studied 17K adults for 2yrs. They were looking for the effects of physical, sexual, emotional, and other traumas sustained during childhood. The results showed that childhood trauma indeed, causes significant health conditions including mental health challenges, and for some, suicide in later life.
But what about a child that’s currently experiencing trauma? What happens to them?
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear about a suicide? Mental Illness? Depression? While depression certainly increases the risk of suicide, in children, we must explore the underlying causes of said depressive behavior. Because as far as I know, no child is born sad, depressed, and wanting to kill themselves. Something happened.
In the past few years in the US, prescription-strength antidepressant use has nearly quadrupled, and yet, during that time, suicide rates have continued to soar! How do we reconcile that? This fact is reflected in other countries of the world, prompting the WHO and the American Academy of Pediatrics to declare youth suicide a global and national crisis in 2017 and 2020 respectively, and the stigma of mental illness a global public health crisis.
My argument is that mental anguish, not mental illness is at the crux of most suicides. And in children, TRAUMA is the epicenter! In the form of bullying, child abuse, domestic violence, racism, toxic relationships, and so forth. None of which prescription-strength medications alone can fix.
When I started working with suicidal youth, I realized that children who kill themselves are not simply depressed…NAH! Amongst other things they have been betrayed, by systems that allow other children to bully them, and adults to prey on them (like I was). Betrayed by parents and caregivers who (for the most part) completely miss the signs, which btw, 4/5 teens who attempt suicide leave a sign.
And a prior suicide attempt is the strongest risk factor for suicide death.
Did you know that suicide is second only to accidents as the leading cause of death for youth aged 10 through 34?
Or that African American kids aged 5 through 12 are twice as likely as their White counterparts to die by suicide?
Or that LGBTQ+ youth, particularly Trans youth, and Indigenous youth across the globe are all at high risk of suicide?
One word… TRAUMA!
Yes, self-loathing, low self-worth, negative intrusive thoughts, and loneliness are key features in the suicide notes of its victims…
And so, you ask, Dr. Lulu, what’s up with all that? Why would otherwise “happy youth” decide to kill themselves? I thought you’d never ask! Believe it or not, I asked myself the exact same question 2years ago before I quit my traditional pediatrician job to figure out just that! Let’s look at just one case…
14-year-old Naika Venant from Miami, FL, who streamed her suicide live on Facebook, only 3 weeks after another teen suicide for alleged sexual abuse by a family member. While Naika used her scarf, some children use other personal effects like a jump rope or a belt, but the majority of children will use a firearm often found at home… as my neighbor’s son did a few weeks ago.
For 3 hours, onlookers watched, laughed, and egged Naika on! (One of them was allegedly her own mother!)
The Chicago Tribune described her death as “a lonely death”. In their write up, they questioned if Naika had felt invisible her entire life. After all, she endured countless episodes of physical, sexual, emotional, and other abuse by her mother and dozens of caregivers while in a system that at one point, placed her in up to 16 different foster homes in the space of 8 months!
Perhaps she chose a Livestream because she finally wanted to be seen!
Silence, Shame, Stigma, and a mix of raw emotions are the perfect recipe for the worst outcome of trauma during childhood.
But there is hope!
Studies have shown that formerly suicidal teens who can identify one single trusted adult in their lives, will thrive! That sanctuary is what I offer my patients in my youth motivational coaching practice. And you too can do the same. You can be the one for the at-risk youth around you. And hopefully, join me in creating a youth suicide-free world by the year 2025…but, that’s around the corner, so we better hurry!
Three things you can do:
1/ Look for signs: they are usually everywhere…(4/5 remember?)
a/ Asking questions, talking or writing about death…kids don’t usually do that.
b/Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or worthlessness, or loneliness
c/ Recklessness, loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed or giving away their possessions
2/ Offer troubled youth empathy and compassion, not judgment, and certainly, not more medications!
3/ T.A.L.K to them, and for me, TALK means:
~Tune in to the right radio frequency of your child a.k.aknow your child
~Ask the right questions:
*Are you thinking about hurting yourself?
*Do you have a plan?
(I know most people think that talking about suicide to your child suggests suicide. Nothing could be further away from the truth. Au contraire, asking questions makes your child know that you care about them and you care.)
~Lean in and listen to the responses to the questions that you asked(lead from the heart, close the gap)
~Keep communication lines open as you get them effective professional help (and that means a combination of medications and talk therapy and finding root causes).
You see that cold Sunday morning in November 2015 could have ended very differently for me. But I decided to make some drastic changes in my life. The thing is though, I am an adult, I can do that, most children, cannot… and that is where you come in. Here is what I did:
- I analyzed my situation and realized that my antidepressants were making me worse
- I also realized that my voice is the loudest one in my head, and the words I was saying to myself were not good. I have since changed the way I speak to myself
- And thirdly, I got myself some effective professional help!
Today, with the love and support of my family and friends, I can proudly say, I am “sur-thriving”.
I do the same thing with my patients.
We first analyze their traumas by naming them one by one, then we identify their triggers (these are often within 100 to 200 feet from where they stand, and you, my friend, might even be a trigger). Lastly, we help them control the negative thoughts in their heads (by teaching them to acknowledge their thoughts, analyze the thoughts for veracity, and then act based on their results. And knock on wood, my patients are all thriving.
In closing, I would urge you to remember that when it comes to youth suicide, three words; trauma, trauma, trauma!
Always look for root causes
Always ask the question, “What happened…?”, not “WHY?” (Why tends to be judgmental, and what happened is more understanding)
Avoid jumping to diagnose“mental illness” or give more medications. If a child is being sexually abused or cyber-bullied, and side effects of medications)
I will end with an original quote:
“A suicide attempt is never a cry for attention, it is always a cry for connection.”
~ Dr. Lulu