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The Reality of One in Five Students Contemplating Suicide: I Was That One

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As a parent of adult children, the month of September now begins without much fanfare. Whereas this month used to usher in the bustle of a new school year, these days it often starts on a much quieter note. I admittedly don’t give the month the recognition I used to because those school days are behind us now, both my children’s and my own. As I laid in bed this morning, sleepily scrolling through Facebook, I was swiftly reminded that it was now September by a simple post that said:

“Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.

One in five. That’s how many students experience suicidal thoughts. Let’s talk about it.”

That simple blurb stopped my scrolling and started me thinking back to when I was a student. Not that those around me knew, but I was that one in five.

Back when I was a teenager, if you asked anyone on the outside looking in, including classmates, friends, teammates, teachers, and neighbors, they probably would have told you that I was one of the last people they’d ever imagine being suicidal.

I wouldn’t have considered myself one of the more popular kids in school, but I was friends with them. I was friends with a lot of people. I never had any issues with bullying or anything of that sort. I was in advanced classes and got great grades. I tried out for and had made the high school cheerleading squads starting in 8th grade because I was already taking a few high school courses. I had been a roaming reporter for our school’s morning video news broadcasts, recording lighthearted and fun clips with teachers and students alike. I had a steady high school boyfriend who I began dating in middle school and would be my high school sweetheart throughout the rest of my school years.

To those on the outside looking in, I seemed to be on easy street. Friends, boyfriend, good grades, playing sports and doing extracurricular activities. To those who thought they knew me, I seemed happy. I seemed like I was coasting through high school and made the whole experience look easy.

But behind closed doors, it was a different story.

I lived in a combative, abusive household in more ways than one. Though I hid it well behind a smiling and friendly mask, by the time I was 16, I had already been through many years of mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. My mother was my primary abuser, though not the only one. Behind closed doors, it often felt like my father was the only one I had on my side.

Two months shy of my 16 birthday, my father, my only protector in the house, walked out on his marriage to my mother and left me behind. He later told me that he woke up one morning and no longer recognized himself. A man who loved to laugh, he now had deep frown lines etched in his face and a bleeding ulcer. He later told me that he knew in that moment if he stayed, it would kill him. He also later admitted that he knew he couldn’t take me with him because he had no plan in place, no place to go. Though he left to save his own life, in many ways it destroyed mine because I no longer had a buffer for my mom’s rage or a protector in my house. I was all alone.

That’s when my suicidal thoughts began.

After my father left, I tried numerous times to call him at work, to talk and to understand, to tell him I missed him and ask why he didn’t take me as well. One of his coworkers always answered and told me he had just stepped out. I had no idea at the time that my mother had forbidden my father from speaking to me after he left, threatening him with going to the police with abuse allegations that she knew to be false. All I knew was that it felt like he had abandoned me and I needed answers.

Two months later, on the day of my 16 birthday itself, I tried yet again to call. I was sure that on this day of all days he would speak to me. When I dialed his work number and his coworker answered to greet me, I heard my father in the background say “tell her I’m not here.” The phone dropped and my heart shattered. I hadn’t just been calling at inopportune times. He didn’t want to speak to me. He didn’t want me. He had abandoned me. Those five words confirmed and cemented that I was indeed all alone. That last ember of hope that I had desperately clung to was snuffed out that day.

My 16 birthday was the first time I tried to kill myself.

Not that anyone outside even knew. Heck, most didn’t even know my father had walked out on us two months prior, and wouldn’t know until over a month later after my mother made headlines when she was arrested for going to his work and shooting him.

If you had looked at kids in my high school to try and pick out the ones who might have been in a mental health crisis, you may have considered the random loner who didn’t have any friends or the seemingly awkward kid who was bullied by their peers, but nobody would have given me a second thought. Yet I was one of the many kids who fell into that one in five students that Facebook blurb spoke about.

A few years before my attempt, another kid in my school died by suicide. Much like me, he too played sports. He also had a steady girlfriend and was fairly popular. Nobody expected it beforehand, and after the fact nobody knew why.

The fact is that you can’t just look at a group of kids and pick out which ones might be suicidal. You don’t always know what kids are going through behind closed doors. You don’t know if something traumatic has happened in their past or if something life-altering has recently occurred. One in five students — in a classroom of 25, that’s five kids. In a group of 100, that’s 20. Let that sink in.

In the United States, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among 15 – 24 year olds. According to the CDC, suicide accounts for 11% of the total deaths for teenagers, almost twice that of cancer. More young adults contemplate suicide than any other age group. Though as many as 20% of students may think about suicide, data from The National Alliance on Mental Illness shows that 9% of students have made an attempt, almost half of those who have contemplated it. That means that in a classroom of 25 where five students have thought about suicide, at least two have made an attempt.

According to the US Census Bureau, as of 2021, there are over 43 million adolescents between the ages of 11 and 19 in the United States alone, making up 13% of the population. Twenty percent of that is 8.6 million – 8.6 million children who are contemplating suicide. Nine percent of that 43 million, roughly 3.87 million children in the United States, have made at least one actual attempt. The numbers are staggering. And it extends beyond the United States.

Countries worldwide are facing an epidemic of adolescent suicide. According to a 2020 report by India’s National Crime Records Bureau, one student dies by suicide in their country roughly every 42 minutes. Statistics recorded as recently as 2020 in Japan show suicide as the leading cause of death among those aged 15-19. In 2016, the Kids Help Phone in Canada revealed that one in five teenagers in Canada have seriously considered suicide. Much like in the United States, the many countries of the European Union as a whole lists suicide as the 2nd leading cause of death for adolescents, with each country sharing their own alarming statistics. In the UK, it is estimated that 7% of children have made a suicide attempt before the age of 18. France lists suicide as the 2nd leading cause of death for adolescents, and saw an 27% increase of suicide attempt hospitalizations for children in the last few years coinciding with the pandemic. During the pandemic, Croatia saw a rise of over 57% in suicides by adolescents. In Bulgaria, 70% of all the nation’s suicides are teenagers. In Romania, suicidal thoughts among children have risen to 16%.

It is far too easy sometimes to become complacent and not give much thought to things going on in the world around us if they don’t affect us directly. I’m frequently guilty of this myself. Now that my children are grown beyond their adolescent years, I admittedly don’t often give much thought to the many pitfalls of the teenage years because they no longer seem to apply directly to my family or myself.

But I should. We all should, whether or not it directly pertains to us in the moment. We were all children once. Many of us will one day have children of our own, if we haven’t already. And many of our children will one day have children of their own. So the cycle continues, as will the increasing suicide rates among our youth if we don’t take this problem seriously.

It begins with kindness. None of us ultimately knows what others are going through, so we must strive to treat each other with compassion and empathy. As a society, we must also work harder to provide our children with better access to mental health treatment and to encourage them to actually pursue it when needed. We also need to teach them by example, prioritizing our own mental wellness.

It is said that our children are our future. When you consider that 1/5 of adolescents are contemplating suicide, and almost 1/10 have made an actual attempt, the full gravity of the situation begins to weigh heavily. Their future is at stake. Our entire future is at stake. This epidemic affects us all, whether we have school age children or not.

It is said that one in five students seriously contemplates suicide. I was that one in five. Were you?

Getty image by Yulia Sutyagina

Originally published: September 24, 2022
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