By all accounts, 15-year-old Don Nelson seemed a typical teenager. Thus, no one knows for sure why, on April 14, 1985, he shot himself with his father’s gun. There are only clues, guesses.
None of the social factors suicide experts point to—family breakdown, mobility, drug or alcohol abuse—applied to the Nelsons, a close-knit family living in a quiet neighborhood outside Iowa City. Married for 25 years, Jack and Beth Nelson lived in the same house all of Don’s brief life, a roomy ranch house Jack built when there was nothing around but cornfields.
“Don had plenty of friends. Neighborhood kids were always here,” his family says. Just hours before he took his life, he helped a neighbor till his garden. His death seemed so sudden.
Don Nelson’s tragic death is yet one more statistic to be added to the nearly 6,000 teen suicides reported yearly in the United States. As many as two million people between the ages of 13 and 19 will attempt suicide each year, according to Dr. Seymour Perlin, board chairman of the National Youth Suicide Center in Washington, D.C.
“The actual suicide rate is much higher than 6,000 per year,” claims Mitch Anthony, executive director of the National Suicide Help Center in Rochester, Minnesota. “I would estimate it at more like 20,000. This is because many accidents—currently the leading cause of death among teenagers—are really suicides that are reported as accidents. I know of a woman whose son hung himself. Even as he hung by the rope, the police officer asked her if she wanted him to report it as an accident. I have interviewed funeral directors who have confirmed that many so-called accidents were really suicides.”
Besides the actual numbers, the rate of increase is alarming. Between 1950 and 1977, the suicide rate among adolescents quadrupled for males and almost doubled for females. Overall, suicide in adolescents has tripled in the last ten years and is most likely the leading cause of death among young people.
Nor are Christians immune. Says one youth pastor in an evangelical church: “Out of the 30 kids in my youth group, I counsel about 3 or 4 a year who are suicidal.” It is not always the kids who have obvious problems who become suicidal, either. Says the same youth pastor: “One of the girls who confessed to being suicidal was looked up to by all the other kids in the group as being ‘perfect’.”
Some Christian teenagers, whose faith is just beginning to solidify, may be even more susceptible to suicidal thoughts than unbelievers, says Tom Burklow, director of Pastoral Counseling Services (a division of Youth for Christ) in Wayne, New Jersey. “Christian kids may feel like they want to be in heaven with Jesus or with a loved one who died. Or their sensitized consciences may lead them to feel so bad about themselves because of their sins that they begin to believe they deserve to die.”
What makes a Don Nelson four times more likely to kill himself in 1986 than in 1955? The reasons are complex. Experts point to a number of social factors: the breakdown of the family, drug and alcohol abuse, and increased influence of the mass media (some rock songs, such as AC/DC’s “Shoot to Kill,” actually encourage suicide; and suicide is sometimes romanticized when it is dramatized on television and in the press).
The Suicide Help Center’s Anthony points to another change that the news media often ignore: increasing sexual activity at ever-younger ages. “When a teenager breaks up with someone he or she was sexually involved with, it’s like divorce. Divorce is hard enough for adults to handle; for kids it can be devastating.”
Such cultural changes have tremendously increased the upheaval of growing-up years—years traditionally characterized anyway by emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual instability.
Can’t Handle the Pain
“Looking back, we can see that Don became too involved with Susan,” says Beth. “He wouldn’t talk about his relationship with Susan—it was very private,” says Don’s sister Joyce. “But that’s normal for that age,” she adds. “We didn’t think anything of it.”
Don’s girlfriend, the youngest daughter of a Plymouth Brethren family who lived not far from the Nelsons, is a year older than Don. Susan and Don met when she was a freshman in high school. During the first summer of their romance, Susan’s parents were away for three weeks. “We got real close,” she says. “We could talk about anything.” The closeness didn’t last. There were jealousy, fits of temper, and breakups that lasted a day.
One Saturday, Don and Susan had another fight, and the next day Don called her. “He was in a dreary mood,” she remembers. “I had to get off the phone to get ready for church. Later he called me at my sister’s. I told him, ‘Don, this isn’t working out. I think we’d better break up.’
“He said, ‘My whole life is you. I don’t want to live without you.’ Don dared me to hang up on him. He said, ‘You’ll be sorry if you do,’ and ‘quit trying to forget about me because it won’t work.’ Finally I did hang up on him—after he said, ‘You’d better buy a dress, because the next time you see me you’ll be wearing it.’ ”
Don kept his word.
“The issue isn’t pressure so much as the fact that kids aren’t learning coping skills,” says Ron Hutchcraft, executive director of Metro New York Youth for Christ. “Many, many kids these days don’t have role models for handling pain. So they may take a drug or alcohol to sedate the pain—or they might try suicide, the ultimate sedative. If they are protected from handling the painful consequences of their actions, they don’t learn how to stand up to pressure.”
Lacking those coping skills, many teenagers see suicide as an option. In one study, 34 percent of teenagers said they “seriously considered” suicide; 32 percent said they had made plans; and 14 percent said they had made an attempt. Another study found 20 percent of teens claimed they were “empty, confused, and would rather die than live.” A survey of high school and college students asked the question, “Do you ever think suicide among young people is an option?” Forty-nine percent said yes.
Though suicidal adolescents come from all socioeconomic levels, they all show certain behavioral characteristics that a discerning adult can see and recognize: they often lack problem-solving or coping skills; they exhibit tunnel vision when asked to examine alternatives to problems (drugs or suicide seem like the “only” solutions).
Those who are successfully working to prevent teenage suicide, therefore, attack it by teaching young people positive ways to cope with problems. “Programs that merely teach teens facts about suicide are more destructive than helpful,” says Anthony. Talking about suicide publicly always carries the subtle danger that it makes suicide seem like an option. “I tell kids bluntly, ‘Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It’s like cutting off your leg because your little toe hurts.’ ”
Joy Johnson, associate professor at the University of Illinois School of Social Work in Chicago, agrees with Anthony. In her private practice, she has treated many suicidal youth. “I don’t believe in anything that gives kids the message that suicide is an option. I will talk with them forever about how awful they feel, about how they feel they’ve been ripped off. But I won’t get into an argument with them about how much they have to live for. Because if they disagree with me on that point, it will seem to them that killing themselves is an option. Instead, I tell kids that suicide is an act of hostility and an act of cowardice. I tell them directly, ‘I didn’t know you were such a chicken.’ Kids will do anything to avoid being called a chicken.”
Both Anthony and Johnson advocate a therapeutic milieu in schools and churches, an atmosphere in which everyone watches out for one another. “It doesn’t really help for anyone to try to figure out if a person is really suicidal,” says Johnson. “What does help is when everyone watches out for the kids who are hurting, who are undergoing stress. And getting those kids some kind of help, whether it’s a stress support group in which they can talk over problems and feelings with friends or a professional counselor.”
Such a therapeutic milieu is especially important when there is an actual suicide, since one suicide or suicide attempt will often set off a chain reaction.
Don’s mother finds it hard to believe that he once attempted suicide by cutting his arms without her knowing. But many times a suicide attempt is unnoticed by the family. The clues are so subtle that it is difficult to distinguish them from the normal ups and downs of adolescence.
“The last few weeks before the incident, Don was pretty grouchy and a little down,” his mother remembers. “I thought it had to do with his sinus and stomach problems. In fact, on Friday, two days before the incident, he said, ‘Mom, I wish I started to feel better.’ I told him, ‘Monday we’ll go to the doctor.’ ” But Monday never came for Don.
“Most families will say, ‘It was so impulsive, so sudden, there were no warning signs,’ ” says Anthony. “But when I list the warning signs, and ask, ‘Did the person eat or sleep too much, or too little? did the person become withdrawn? was there a marked personality difference?’—then they can look back in retrospect and say, ‘I guess there were some warning signs.’ ” Parents are often the last to know what is going on.
Thus, pastors, parents, teachers, and other concerned people should watch out for young people who are in these high risk categories:
- Those who have gone through, or are going through, a family crisis. About 71 percent of young people who attempt suicide are from broken homes. Close to 75 percent of teens from broken homes reported, when questioned in one study, that they felt guilty and responsible for the divorce. Divorce can be a stimulus to a suicide attempt because a child may feel that if he were “out of the way,” things just might work out. Of the 29 percent of suicide attempters who come from unbroken homes, many are living in very troubled family situations.
- Those who have abused drugs or alcohol themselves or witnessed substance abuse in their families. In over 50 percent of suicides or suicide attempts, drugs are either part of the person’s history or part of the actual attempt.
- Those who have been abused physically, sexually, verbally, or through neglect. Although no statistics are available, counselors and researchers comment on the especially high correlation between teenage girls who have been sexually abused and those attempting or contemplating suicide.
- Those teens who are not living at home with their natural parents. “Over and over again, I hear from kids who have been sent to live in a foster home or with a relative, ‘My family would be better off without me—look, they got rid of me,’ ” says Mitch Anthony.
- Those who have had a significant loss or are facing the anniversary of a significant loss (death, divorce, breakup of a romance—especially when there has been sexual involvement—or family bankruptcy). Any loss of relationship or a major blow to the ego can precipitate a crisis. The key question to ask is “What does this loss mean to the person?”
- Those who have previously attempted suicide. Four out of five young people who kill themselves this year will have attempted suicide before. (Of course, we do not always know about previous attempts. One girl reported, “I took some pills and got real sick. I didn’t tell anyone. My parents and everyone at school thought I just had the flu.”) About 12 percent of those who attempt suicide this year will try again and succeed within two years. “The main thing,” says Joy Johnson, “is to prevent that first attempt. We know now that if we can get a kid who is temporarily suicidal not to make that first attempt, the likelihood is we can keep that person alive.” A suicide attempt should always be regarded as a serious cry for help.
- Those who have a history of suicide among family or friends. This is probably due more to negative role modeling than to genetics, says Steve Lansing, director of counseling at the National Suicide Help Center. When suicide becomes the way a significant other deals with stress, it can seem like an option to a troubled teen.
- Those who feel pressure to excel. The pressure may be external—parents who push kids to succeed, often beyond their abilities. Or it can be internal—teens who are perfectionistic and highly self-critical. This indicator occurs most often in the keen, intellectual, articulate achiever. (It may also be the most prevalent among Christian young people, when knowledge of God’s standards and a sense of their own sinfulness become distorted.) Despite this type’s successes, they never feel life is satisfying because things do not measure up to their own standards. (Such a person may have trouble accepting that only God is perfect and that human beings will make mistakes.) When people seem to hate themselves for making mistakes, steps should be taken to help them set realistic goals and cope with disappointment and failure.
Afraid to Act
“Don would scare me sometimes,” says Susan. “He wouldn’t say much, just get this look on his face and clench his jaw. Maybe slam a locker. Or get on his moped or a friend’s motorcycle and drive as fast as he could.”
Susan remembers that the last couple of months were very rocky. “One day he showed me his arms, where he’d cut himself up. I asked him why he did that. Didn’t he know I cared? He just said he was angry. He wouldn’t say about what. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do or say. I told him not to hurt himself. Another time he told me, ‘One night I stood in front of a mirror with a gun.’
“I was telling him that we couldn’t work out together. He was telling me he couldn’t live without me.” Susan didn’t know what to say, so she just let it slide.
Friends and family members who spot suicidal signs should not be afraid of confronting the person, says Mitch Anthony. “Trust your intuition. People who are suicidal want to be rescued. They don’t really want to die; they just don’t know how to keep living with all that pain. Another person can help them deal with the pain.”
“Most teenagers who plan a suicide attempt want to be stopped,” agrees Tom Burklow. “And they will appoint someone to discover their intentions and save them.
“Virtually every suicidal person I’ve dealt with is ambivalent,” Burklow continues. “One part of the person wants to live; another part wants to die. In intervention, you want to try to tip the balance toward choosing life.”
In confronting a troubled person, don’t be afraid to be direct, says Anthony. “Say, ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve seemed troubled lately. Let’s talk about it.’ At some point you can ask, ‘Have you ever thought of suicide?’ ” Normalizing thoughts of suicide will often relieve the person’s anxiety and actually diminish his or her compulsion to act. “Point out that it is common for people to feel so helpless and hopeless sometimes that they think about ending their lives. But that doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Most of us have thought that at one time or another.”
The next step is to distinguish between suicidal thought and suicidal intent. To determine intent, ask, “How were you thinking of killing yourself?” State the question this way, rather than “How are you thinking of doing it?” By using the past tense you communicate that you and the person are going to move past thoughts of suicide to positive answers.
The person’s answer to that question will indicate the degree of intent. The more developed the plan, the higher the degree of risk.
The final question Anthony advises posing in an intervention is: “Are you seriously contemplating suicide right now?” By asking this question you will find that some have moved past this way of thinking, others are just beginning to reach this mindset, and still others are locked in the middle.
A Job for a Professional
“It’s important to get a suicidal person to a professional who knows how to make an assessment and who can work with such a person,” says Joy Johnson. “It’s important not to try to do too much on your own.” One woman tells how her 17-year-old son told six people, including the parents of his girlfriend, that he was thinking of killing himself. They thought they talked him out of it and he would be okay. But six days before his eighteenth birthday and his high school graduation he hung himself.
A very effective preventive program Joy Johnson uses is called networking, and can be initiated by any parent or concerned adult and incorporated into any church or school program. “If I know about a person who is suicidal, I will find five adults who care whether that person lives or dies. I will say to them, ‘It is my judgment that Barbara is in danger of hurting herself and needs to have someone with her at all times.’ ” Those five people will rearrange their schedules to take turns to be with Barbara so that for the next four days someone is always within eight feet of her.
This action does two powerful things. First, it is a tremendous caring statement to the teen. It says, “There are five people who care enough to rearrange their whole schedules to see that you don’t hurt yourself.” Second, it’s a bother. “Kids don’t like it after a very short while. Any manipulative motives that may have been mixed up in their suicide intent get drummed out rather quickly,” Johnson says. “And I tell them, ‘If you think this is bad, it’s worse in the hospital.’ Before long they begin to see that there are better ways to deal with their problems.”
George’s Three Bullets
Professional help notwithstanding, the power of any caring intervention is great. Mitch Anthony tells of George, one of the most high-risk teenagers Anthony has encountered in the rap sessions that are part of his high school suicide-prevention program:
Five years before George attended one of Anthony’s rap sessions, George’s father had killed himself. George believed that when he himself died, he would be met by a great light and could have any question answered. “What would your question be?” Mitch asked. “I would ask my father why he killed himself,” George whispered.
“I was scared,” says Mitch. “With a belief like that, there seemed nothing to keep him from getting his question answered.” Especially because George had it all planned: He had a loaded gun rigged in his room so that one pull of a string would end the last five years of pain and questioning. And he carried two more bullets with him to remind him he had an escape.
After the rap session, Anthony walked George and his girlfriend to his car. He told George, “You know, I really believe if you would get rid of those three bullets you would be crossing over the line from death to life.”
“Those bullets are my only safety valve,” said George.
“Well, would you at least commit yourself to reading this book?” Anthony asked, handing him a copy of his book Seven Reasons to Keep on Living, which presents the gospel as the foundation for purpose in life.
George agreed to read the book. Mitch Anthony prayed—hard.
That evening, after Anthony’s talk to the parents of the teenagers who had heard his presentation earlier that day in school, a woman approached him, tears in her eyes. “I’m George’s mother—thank you,” she said. “George gave me this envelope to give you.”
In the envelope were three bullets.
Diane Eble is assistant editor of Campus Life magazine. Names and personal details in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals discussed.
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