Preventing teen suicide

The tragic deaths of Gina Gentile, 16, and Vanessa Dorwart, 15, who were struck by an Amtrak Acela train in Norwood at 10:28 a.m. Thursday, grew – if possible – worse Saturday when police said the teens had committed suicide. As a father of two young daughters, I can only imagine the pain the families are feeling. There is nothing good about this horrible situation.

Friends of the girls said they had been upset about the death of Gentile’s boyfriend in a January bicycle accident, reported my colleagues Mari A. Schaefer, Nancy Phillips, and Tom Infield. Their parents, however, had seen no signs they were contemplating taking their own lives.

Perhaps the girls' deaths can raise awareness of the problem of teen suicide and convince parents to educate themselves about signals that could help prevent similar tragedies. I searched for credible information on suicide warning signs in teenagers.

The Nemours Foundation, a pediatric health network that includes the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., and clinics in hospitals in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida, identifies such warning signs on its website.

The Nemours site says suicide among teens often occurs following a stressful life event, such as a perceived failure at school, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a major family conflict.

Here are some warning signs that a teenager might be thinking about suicide:
         talk about suicide or death in general 
         talk about "going away" 
         talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty 
         pull away from friends or family
         lose the desire to take part in favorite things or activities 
         have trouble concentrating or thinking clearly 
         experience changes in eating or sleeping habits
         self-destructive behavior (drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or driving too fast, for example)

What Can Parents Do?

Most teens who commit or attempt suicide have given some type of warning to loved ones ahead of time. So it's important for parents to know the warning signs so that kids who might be suicidal can get the help they need.

Watch and Listen

Keep a close eye on a teen who seems depressed and withdrawn. Poor grades, for example, may signal that your teen is withdrawing at school.

It's important to keep the lines of communication open and express your concern, support, and love. If your teen confides in you, show that you take those concerns seriously. A fight with a friend might not seem like a big deal to you in the larger scheme of things, but for a teen it can feel immense and consuming. It's important not to minimize or discount what your teen is going through, as this can increase his or her sense of hopelessness.

If your teen doesn't feel comfortable talking with you, suggest a more neutral person, such as another relative, a clergy member, a coach, a school counselor, or your child's doctor.

The National Institute of Mental Health has an article about a new approach to suicide prevention in teens that shows some promise.

Here's a link to suicide prevention information from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

And here's a link to suicide prevention resources from the STAR-Center, an organization established by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1986 to investigate teen suicide.