Research says that 1 in 5 students say they have considered committing suicide, with 4.6 % actually making a plan to do so. The Journal of the American Medical Association states that between 2009 to 2015, emergency rooms in America saw a sharp rise in treatment of girls and young women between the ages of 10 and 24 who intentionally injured themselves. And in the past six years the ER visits for self-harm surged 18.8 percent.
In 2018, a 17 year-old posted a picture of self-inflicted wounds which stirred a major uproar, according to an article in the Jamaica Gleaner. In this same article, it was reported that though this was the first time she posted pictures on social media, she had been cutting for three years.
Three years…. Did any adult in her life know?
Bridge the disconnect
In my ten years of being in the helping profession I have heard so much pain, confusion and despair from young people. What hurts the most is the hopelessness many of them feel because of the responses, or the lack thereof, of adults.
Young people have told me their parents tell them to kill themselves when emotional. Others have reported being told to take something stronger the next time they try to kill themselves as they process a previous failed attempt.
I have sat across the room as parents justify why a report of assault mustn’t be made in order to protect family image. Parents tell me to fix their child, and are defensive when asked to process any part they may play in the child’s distress.
As a therapist my desire is to bridge the disconnect and challenge the adults in these children’s lives to see them by offering these seven pointers.
- Don’t compare.
Yes, your child does not pay bills, go to work, or have an oppressive boss; but the pressure of school, friends, betrayal, self-esteem, making plans for the future and romantic relationships are hard. It is hard for you, and it is hard for them. Struggles aren’t delineated by age. Empathise with them instead of disregarding them.
- Build resilience not resentment
Yes, you survived; and there are many times when you want to point this out, but it’s important to validate feelings before challenging. In order to build in a child or teenager the ability to withstand difficult situations in the future, it is important to empower them not ostracize them. Part of that empowering comes from knowing that you are walking along with them; that they are not alone.
- Both boys and girls need empathy
How often have we separated the genders when processing emotional stressors? If it is a boy who tries to share his feelings, he is met with disdain/disregard, as persons equate emotional distress to the boy being weak. For the few who get a chance to express their feelings, they are given a time-limit for their feelings or only allowed to express feelings if it lines up with cultural perceptions of masculinity (for example, anger).
Girls aren’t in a better position. A young person who was in an abusive home came to came to see me. She expressed her frustration with a teacher who questioned her on the time of month when she was having a triggered episode and wanting to go to her school guidance counselor. Her emotions were seen as a one-dimensional issue and relegated to hormones and a desire to be delinquent.
Both young men and women experience all emotions and need to know that their feelings are valued and valid. They need the support of the adults around them to process it.
- Give space for mess-ups
We come down with the heavy hand, or identify youth by their mistakes. Their issues become their identity. This practice is unfair. Young people need room to know that they can make mistakes, bounce-back and come back home to a place of security. I am not saying that they should not be corrected or receive discipline, but we shouldn’t hold their mistakes over their heads. Nurture a positive view.
- You were there too
Sometimes I wonder if Peter Pan had it right when he fought against growing up. The loss of understanding we have when we cross over from doe-eyed teenager to stressed out adult is seemingly linked to major amnesia. How quickly we forget the intensity of the emotions we had when we were that age! Remember you also thought you couldn’t live after the break-up. You felt shattered when your best friend betrayed you. You felt alone when rumours were spread about you at school. Let’s remember what it's like, be compassionate and share how you handled it.
I understand that some of us were forced to attend the school of hard knocks from an early age, or were robbed of innocence in childhood. To that I encourage your own personal healing so that your story of overcoming can be a guiding light for a young person.
- Be aware
Be actively involved in seeking out mental health support for your child or teenager. In 13 Reasons Why, a novel turned popular series on Netflix, the protagonist, Hannah’s parents, were oblivious to her struggle until it was too late. Be alert to your child’s needs whether you are a parent, teacher, church worker or camp counselor.
- Get help
If your child has cancer you take them to the oncologist for medical help. It is the same with mental health. Be actively involved in seeking out mental health support. Get counseling for your child. However, do not see it as a ‘drop off my child to get fixed’, scenario. Be actively involved, seeking guidance from the counselor as to how you can help, any part you may play in your child’s distress and ways to offer support during and after counseling. Learning to be a parent shouldn’t end at lamaze class. Parenting is a life-long sojourn, and you need support along the way.
American poet and painter E.E. Cummings said it “takes courage to grow up..” and I believe that this courage can be better cultivated if we, as adults, take the time to see the pain of our young people and dive in to help them.
Stacy-Ann Smith is a Press Service International Young Writer and winner of the Basil Sellers Award.