Facing the realities of teen suicide

Facing the realities of teen suicide

September is Suicide Prevention Month.


If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or if you are grieving someone who committed suicide, contact Pathways Professional Counseling for options for help. Visit pathwaysprofessional.org or call 1-866-991-6864.


How Alabama Baptist churches can help prevent teen suicide in their community

By Denise George
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

Suicide is the third leading cause of death in Alabama among children, youth and young adults ages 10 to 24 years. And since 1990 the state has shown higher rates for suicide than the national average.

In the United States today, a person dies by suicide every 13 minutes. One hundred Americans will take their own lives every day. Someone in the nation attempts suicide every 31 seconds. The heart-breaking stories of young Alabamians killing themselves is becoming too common.

A 15-year-old student in the Decatur area hung herself from a balcony in 1999. She was the third teen to commit suicide in five months in Morgan County that year.

In May 2016 police in Decatur found a 19-year-old male dead inside his home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

A 19-year-old male from Baldwin County threatened to kill himself in July 2016 and a few hours later wrapped his seat belt around his neck while riding as a passenger with his 16-year-old girlfriend. He jumped from the car and strangled himself.

A 15-year-old girl from Pinson took 40 300 mg aspirin tablets trying to end her life after being cyber bullied by another student in August 2016. “Go kill yourself,” the text message on her phone said, “Everybody is waiting.” She had endured constant bullying for a year and a half.

In March 2016 the Alabama Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 11, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Allen (R-Tuscaloosa) to establish a suicide prevention training program for school officials and teachers.

The bill is named after 16-year-old Jason Flatt a “good, all-American boy” who was active in his church youth group.

In 1997, Jason shot himself in the head after his girlfriend broke off their relationship. His father, Clark Flatt, created The Jason Foundation as a way to address and help stop the national teen suicide epidemic.

It requires all K-12 public schools to establish a policy, staff-training program, student curriculum and list of resources for suicide prevention services. The act was signed into law May 10, 2016, making Alabama the 18th state to pass The Jason Flatt Act since 2007.

Role of the church

While some suicides are impossible to prevent, most are believed to be preventable. Church leaders can be instrumental in their efforts to help prevent teen suicide within their congregations and communities.

There are many ways churches can help:

  • Take opportunities to preach and teach (from the pulpit and in Bible study classes) on the value of God-created life and the tragedy of teen suicide.
  • Begin a proactive suicide prevention program in your church. Train and equip your congregation to respond to broken, desperate people needing help.
  • Build strong children and youth programs that create safe and welcoming environments for the church’s young people to meet, talk, learn and fellowship. Pray with and for your young people.
  • Invite Christian professionals from agencies in your community to speak to parents/grandparents, offering a variety of faith-themed parenting classes. Seek to build healthy family relationships in your congregation.
  • Require your pastors of children/youth to take mental health first aid training through organizations like NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Alabama.
  • Teach your church staff, teachers, children/youth ministers and congregation to take threats of suicide seriously and to respond appropriately.
  • Train your church leaders and congregation to recognize the symptoms of potential suicide.
  • Create a network and updated list of trusted mental-health professionals and resources for immediate referral.

If, in spite of your efforts, teen suicide occurs within your congregation, take action immediately:

  • Minister to grieving family and church members, showing them the love of Christ. Be a patient presence, praying with those affected. Refer them to Christian grief counselors and others for help.

Be available

  • Bring together church and community members. Invite professionals to speak, addressing the suicide. Mourn the loss of the victim. Hold a remembrance service in his honor. Be available to help family members arrange funeral/burial arrangements.
  • Watch for signs of “copycat” or “clustered” suicides. Teen suicide can often trigger tendencies that cause others to imitate the tragic act.


How to respond to potential suicide

If someone mentions or shows signs of suicide:

  • Do not leave the person alone.
  • Remove firearms, medications and other objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
  • Call the police or the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Take him or her to an emergency room or seek help from a mental health professional. (Denise George)


‘Every day is a struggle for us now but … it’s our wish that her death would not be in vain’

By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist

In hindsight, there’s always “could’ve” and “should’ve.”

But for Joseph and Patrice Bright, in the months and weeks leading up to their 14-year-old daughter’s suicide, the signs were just not there, they said.

Anna was a cheerleader and a talented artist and musician. She wrote an entire fan fiction novel and drew impressive sketches. She was smart and creative — she made all As in her AP classes.

“She was a girl who looked forward to the future,” Patrice said. “She wanted to be a forensic artist and she made everybody smile. She had a tender heart for people and befriended everybody.”

Anna had a voracious desire to learn — she taught herself sign language, photography, several musical instruments and art.

“We went on a family trip to Disney in March, and she learned every Disney song she could before we left for that trip,” Patrice said.

That trip was a precious time for their family — Joseph, Patrice, Anna and her 11-year-old brother, Samuel.

They had no idea that less than three weeks later, Anna would take her own life.

After school on April 18, Anna called her mom at work while she walked from the bus stop to the house, just as she always did.

“We talked about her day, just like normal,” Patrice said. They talked about an art project Anna was working on — a family crest.

Then Anna got home, and Patrice told her she would see her in a little while. They both said, “I love you.”

That was the last time they would talk.

When Patrice pulled up at the house a couple of hours later, it was swarming with first responders. Her heart sank as a policeman asked her to park and get out of her car. She saw Joseph walking toward her, a policeman under each arm, supporting him as he walked.

Life was forever changed.

“I couldn’t believe it — still can’t,” Joseph said. “Not only was she a happy girl, she was scared of needles, spiders, getting hurt. I couldn’t believe she would ever take her own life.”

Reasons why

The Brights spent the night at a friend’s house that night, then spent three months living at a hotel — they couldn’t bear to go back in the house.

They leaned on God. They tried to keep breathing. And they tried to piece together what had happened.

On the sidewalk outside his house on April 18, Joseph had gasped out the words, “How would she have known to do that?”

A policeman standing nearby gently told him that, though not exactly the same, Anna had modeled her death after the teenage girl on the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” (see story below), a graphic show about a teenage girl who commits suicide.

Without her parents’ knowledge — and without their permission — Anna had watched all 13 episodes of the show.

“We had talked about the show and I told her I didn’t want her to watch it,” Patrice said.

The two had talked about the show when Anna brought it up, and they had talked about suicide before too.

Patrice said she and Anna always had their best deep discussions about life and God on the way to school in the mornings, and the subject had come up before, after actor Robin Williams had committed suicide in 2014.

“She had asked if people who committed suicide went to heaven, and I told her that God’s hand is a big hand — nothing can snatch you out of it if you are really His,” Patrice said. “But I told her it cuts short the life God meant for you to live, and it hurts the people who love you.”

After Anna’s death, a classmate turned in a journal that Anna had left with him. In it, she had described deep struggles against the darkness she felt. She threw the journal in his locker at the end of the day on April 18 as she was leaving school and told him to read it the next day.

When he did, he found she had written about what she was going to do.

“We have talked to counselors since and found out that she likely had major depression that was hidden behind her infectious smile,” Patrice said. “We now know that she was determined to hide the spiritual warfare within her.”

It’s crushing, Joseph said. As parents, they did everything they knew to do to raise their children well. They were present. They asked good questions. They taught them to know God, and Anna had professed faith at church and in the journal where she wrote about her struggles.

But as parents, they still fight against deep guilt.

“Sometimes we feel like we are going to come unglued but God reels us back to truth and Scripture,” he said.

And both of them can see God’s hand at work caring for them. They found a new house. Someone donated four burial plots to the family. Several people came to faith at Anna’s funeral.

“God has left stamps on our lives,” Patrice said. “He has met every single need we’ve had, even when we wake up and don’t know how we will even survive the day.”

Just weeks before Anna’s death, Joseph had resigned as pastor of a small, rural Baptist church, feeling it was time to get his family in a place where they could be involved in a youth group and be more a part of the community where they lived.

Incredible support

“We feel like God was getting us to the place where we needed to be in order to be ministered to at this time,” Patrice said. Their church, The Branch at Mission Hills, Alabaster, has supported them in an incredible way, she said. A group of men have come around Joseph to hold him up, just as a group of women have for Patrice.

School counselors, teachers and friends have rallied around Samuel too.

Patrice has even been able to share their story a few times, most recently with a church in a neighboring community and at a townhall meeting on mental health.

“This journey is not something we would’ve ever chosen for ourselves but we want God to use it,” Patrice said. “Every day is a struggle for us now. But it’s our desire that her life be a testimony to those around us. It’s our wish that her death would not be in vain.

“Giving people hope no matter what they are facing is our new life mission.”


10 ways to support someone who has lost a loved one to suicide

  1. Accept the intensity of the grief. This is complicated grief and will result in complicated mourning.
  2. Listen with your heart.
  3. Avoid trite and simple explanations and clichés.
  4. Be compassionate.
  5. Respect the need to grieve.
  6. Understand the uniqueness of suicide grief.
  7. Be aware of holidays and anniversaries.
  8. Help connect them to support groups and grief resources.
  9. Respect their faith and spirituality.
  10. Realize this is a long and hard journey.

Source: Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition


Netflix TV series about teenage girl who commits suicide gets mixed reactions from praise to concern to blame

By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist

If you’re wondering how much of a prevalent theme teen suicide has become, your TV may just be a mirror, according to Focus on the Family.

Earlier this year when Netflix aired its series “13 Reasons Why,” a drama about a teenage girl who committed suicide, it got more than 11 million tweets in its first week.

The response led producers to film a second season, which reportedly will focus on the recovery phase of teen suicide.

The release date for season 2 is not yet known.

As far as season 1 is concerned, the show “can feel both real and relevant” to many adolescents, Focus on the Family wrote in its Parents’ Guide. “Even if teens can’t fully empathize with … the main character, her trials … may feel very familiar.”

Hannah, a new girl at a fictional high school, gets the reputation right away that she sleeps around, even though it’s not true. She becomes the target of bullying, stalking and rape. A few hours before she takes her own life, she mails a set of cassette tapes to her classmates explaining why she did it and how each of them played a part in her decision.

The series doesn’t back down from portraying these issues graphically, and as a result, it got a TV-MA rating — for “mature audiences” only.

It’s gotten mixed reactions, from praise to concern to blame. Forty percent of teens say they have been bullied online, and some say the show sheds light on these important issues and their potentially tragic consequences.

But the families of two California teens who committed suicide in April blamed the show as a trigger — the girls didn’t know each other but had each finished watching the show a few days before their deaths.

Dangerous presentation

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote on his blog that parents should talk about suicide prevention with their teens but believes the show’s presentation of suicide is dangerous.

“Many depressed teenagers that I’ve talked to over the years, and others with suicidal tendencies, don’t actually want to be dead as much as they want to end one story and start another,” Moore wrote April 27 at russellmoore.com. “In many cases, the suicide becomes, in the imagination, the way to resolve storylines that one sees no other way to resolve.”

In the show, the deceased teen becomes the “star” and other characters come to their senses — a story a depressed teen might long for, Moore wrote.

“‘13 Reasons Why,’ I fear, just might fuel the pull to suicide in some because the storyline itself furthers the illusion that suicide is ‘fixing’ something,” Moore wrote.

When it comes to these heavy subjects, parents might consider skipping the show and just tackling the topics instead, said Lisa Keane, clinical director of marriage and family for Pathways Professional Counseling, a ministry of Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries.

Navigate the topics

“It is imperative that as a parent, you are willing to navigate these topics with your teen instead of wondering in silence if they are influencing your child,” Keane wrote in a blog at pathwaysprofessional.org. “Most teens have been influenced by these shows in one way or another — it could simply be hearing about it in the halls at school, in conversations with friends or watching it without your knowledge. Don’t think your child is immune from the current (TV) fad, because chances are, they probably already know all about it.”

Counselors at Pathways deal with teen suicide and thoughts of suicide on a regular basis, she said. “We have seen and heard reports of how ‘13 Reasons Why’ has negatively impacted teens, whether that was through prompting suicidal thoughts or having someone actually attempt a suicide.”

If you decide that your teenager doesn’t need to watch these shows for whatever reasons, sit down with them and explain why, she said.

“Attempt to come alongside your child and ask them why they would be interested in watching them in the first place,” Keane wrote. “Be willing to have the hard, sometimes awkward, conversations about these topics with your child so that their desire to watch the show can possibly decrease.”

If you do decide to let your teen watch programs like “13 Reasons Why,” watch it with them, Keane said. “These shows are not something you would want your teenager watching alone, feeling they have no one to process what they are seeing with.”

Whether you watch the show or not, encourage your teen to come to you or another trusted adult if they are struggling with any of these types of heavy topics, she said.

“Be willing to take your child seriously and find them the help that they need to overcome those feelings too.”


Tips for safeguarding Netflix

If you are a parent of tweens and teens, you’ve probably discussed your concerns about R and NC-17-rated movies with your kids. But TV shows are rated, too, and parents should be equally aware of what those ratings tell them about shows their kids are watching.

The TV-MA rating — for “mature audiences” — indicates a TV show’s content contains foul language, graphic violence, graphic sexual activity or a combination of these elements and is equivalent to an R or NC-17 movie rating.

The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” is rated TV-MA because of its graphic portrayal of suicide, stalking, rape and bullying. Many parents were caught unaware by the show’s popularity among tweens and teens and the easy access their kids had to it through the popular streaming service. However, with parental controls in place, it’s possible to have conversations about shows like “13 Reasons Why” before kids are exposed to the content. Netflix users can set up profiles, called soft-controls, that manage watch lists based on maturity level.

However, in just a few simple steps, parents can set up their Netflix account with an account-level PIN (personal identification number) that sets family-appropriate limits for everyone who uses the account.

Here’s how:

  1. Login to your Netflix Account page from a web browser. This is the same area of the service’s website where you would enter payment information.
  2. In the Settings menu, choose “Parental controls.”
  3. Enter your Netflix password on the screen.
  4. Enter four numbers into the PIN box.
  5. Set your PIN protection for the appropriate level (options are Little Kids, Older Kids, Teens and Adults).
  6. Save your selection.

Once the PIN is set, viewers must enter it before they can view restricted content.

Additional information is available at https://help.netflix.com/en/node/24805. (TAB)


Why do teens commit suicide?

Most teen suicides (90 percent) involve depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, behavioral problems, relationship struggles, mood disorder and/or sexual or physical abuse.

Other reasons might include:

  • Bipolar disorder (manic depression)
  • Physical illness
  • Feelings of failure, loss, helplessness, hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness
  • Getting into trouble, problems in life, loneliness
  • Making bad grades on tests
  • Arguments, breaking up with a friend/love interest
  • Severe bullying
  • Recent abortion (In the six months following an abortion, high school girls are 10 times more likely to commit suicide.)
  • Confusion about sexual identity
  • Drug abuse (Heroin and prescription painkillers have replaced cocaine in popularity and overdoses can often be lethal.)

(Compiled by Denise George)

For more information, visit www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/Teen-Suicide-Statistics.aspx.


‘God doesn’t let any situation go unused,’ says father on son’s suicide

By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist

Mike Jackson’s family has seen more than its fair share of tragedy — he and his two brothers have each lost a son.

One brother’s son was killed in a car accident on the way home from a lock-in at church in 2004. His other brother’s son was killed when a tornado hit Enterprise High School in 2007.

“There’s been so much grief,” Jackson said.

But the passing of his son, Aaron, 14 years ago has been compounded at times with complicated emotions — his death was a suicide.

“Aaron made the choice to end his life, and as a result, May 17, 2003, is a day that will always haunt us and bring back those memories,” Jackson said. “Death is hard enough, but it wasn’t a natural disaster or an accident. And there’s almost a stigma that comes with that, a heavy guilt.”

That reality has made it hard to know how to talk about Aaron’s death, grieve or carry on with life, he said. “All of us who have experienced that kind of loss are on a journey, and we will never fully arrive until things are set right one day in heaven.”

But Jackson, director of the office of LeaderCare and church health for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said he’s reminded often of the fact that others are on the journey with him. When he shares about his family’s journey at grief conferences, there is almost always someone there who is dealing with the same kind of grief.

“I’m convinced that God doesn’t let any situation go unused,” Jackson said. “It’s available for His glory if we’ll just allow it to be that.”

He offers a few things he’s learned along the way:

  • Respect the journey of individuals mourning the loss of someone who took his or her own life. They need plenty of time to mourn, Jackson said — the emotions have many layers. “It’s such a traumatic death, even if there were some warning signs beforehand,” he said. “You can never really be prepared for it or expect it. It’s devastating.” There’s so much pain and heartache, but there is often also shame, Jackson said.

Feeling of shame

“Be aware that the stigma society places on suicide can lead to shame in the one who is going through the grief process.” Before Aaron’s death at age 19, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and been in outpatient treatment. “He had been hospitalized a few times but we felt like we had a handle on what was going on,” Jackson said. He’s learned since that often when someone suffers from bipolar disorder, an episode may trigger the decision to take their life. “He and his girlfriend got into a fight and he chose that the best thing to do was to end his life,” Jackson said. “It was a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But I can’t understand the depth of the darkness that a person goes through who is dealing with depression and bipolar issues. Sometimes situations seem unbearable.” The lasting impact of suicide is that survivors are left behind attempting to put their lives back together. They often beat themselves up wondering if they did all they could to help, Jackson said. “They may think, ‘Why wasn’t it me? I’ve lost my life instead of them losing theirs,’” he said. A sensitivity toward these emotions can be very helpful for those who are grieving, Jackson said.

  • Encourage them and help them remember the person they lost for who they were. In the darkest hours of grief and struggle, God brought encouragement, Jackson said. “He sent folks at the right time and put us at the right place to hear what we needed to hear.” One of those times was when Jackson was preaching at Deerfoot Baptist Church, Trussville, and a young lady came up and asked if he was Aaron’s dad. “She said, ‘I was one of his friends and his life impacted my life to the point that I’m at church because of him,’” Jackson said. “Tears welled up in my eyes. My wife was with me and I asked the young lady if she would go over and tell her the same thing.”
  • In your own life, take opportunities seriously. If someone hints about taking their own life, take that seriously and get them some help, Jackson said. “You never know what they might act upon.” And don’t take relationships for granted, he said. “My wife and I and our two daughters, we are closer than we ever have been, and we don’t hesitate to tell each other we love each other. We take every opportunity to be together.”


Helpful resources

(Compiled by Denise George)


Suicide warning signs

Studies show that 4 out of 5 children, youth and young adults that attempt suicide have given clear warning signs.

Take action when a person:

  • Expresses suicidal thoughts
  • Shows increased irritability, loss of concentration/motivation
  • Withdraws from family and friends
  • Experiences a drop in grades
  • Is unable to sleep and/or eat
  • Loses interest in personal appearance and favorite activities
  • Shows signs of depression
  • Endures bullying and/or cyber bullying
  • Abuses alcohol and drugs
  • Is involved in abusive dating relationships
  • Frequently runs away or is arrested/incarcerated
  • Loses family members or experiences problems with parents
  • Has unplanned pregnancy
  • Impulsive, aggressive behavior; frequent expressions of rage

(Compiled by Denise George)