Silvia's Blog: "Tackling the Hardest Thing"
Tackling the hardest thing: youth suicide
10 Reflections by Silvia Purdie
Cashmere Presbyterian Church, Christchurch NZ, October 2017
Tackling the hardest thing: youth suicide
Each year the Cashmere Presbyterian Church holds a public seminar. Late last year we asked ourselves – ‘so what are we going to do next year?’. I have teenage boys, and since moving to Christchurch they found themselves quite frequently supporting their peers through very difficult emotions. The hardest thing for them was knowing what to say or do when their friends told them that they were suicidal. I talked about this with some other young people in our church, and they all agreed that this was the single toughest aspect to being a teenager these days.
So this became the topic for our seminar. We decided to focus on the positives without denying the negatives, and called it a Youth Wellbeing Seminar. We felt very brave, as youth suicide was something that everyone knew was a problem but no one talked about. The prevailing attitude in our society and school system was that talking directly about suicide could make young people more likely to suicide.
But this rapidly started to change this year. Suddenly more and more groups were addressing the issue openly. Youth mental health became a hot topic, a major issue in our parliamentary elections, and seminars were happening almost every week in Christchurch. Only, all these articles and workshops were targeted at the professionals working with young people. Ours was the only one actually for young people themselves.
So on Sunday 24 September, after a year of planning and lots of networking and publicity, we had 42 young people in our church hall, seated around tables, for a Youth Wellbeing Seminar. We got them engaging with each other with games and discussion topics. We got them thinking about life and friendship, desperation and hope. We encouraged them to be up-front with their friends and ask the hard questions. We fed them a fabulous meal (thanks to the local Rotary group who sponsored this). The young people worked hard, absorbed lots of information about brains and emotions. We sent them away with a pack of resources, including who to call for help.
Our official youth suicide rate, for which we win the booby prize for being top in the whole world, is 15.6 in 100,000. But that figure is 6 years old already, and we know that youth suicide rates have continued to increase. The mental health nurses who presented to our parents’ night told us that nearly 30 young people go through the Christchurch emergency service every week, mostly actively suicidal. This figure is double that of the previous year. That is a lot of kids in pain.
In this reflection series I will be picking up some aspects of this issue, and asking what the church has to offer.
For all the resources presented at the Youth Wellbeing Seminar, as well as photos and heaps of great links, go to our website:
The official suicide rate figure is taken from
UNICEF: Building the Future report on Children and the Sustainable Development Goals in Rich Countries, Innocenti Report Card 14, June 2017
Friends and peer support - the ‘first responders’
Tackling the hardest thing, Part B
The number one thing I was determined to do with our Youth Wellbeing project was to support our teenagers in being there for each other. This is the missing piece from most of the youth mental health and suicide prevention training, and this is something we can offer as church. Because it’s obvious, right? – young people turn first to their friends. And it’s tough on their friends. They get stressed about it and they worry about you if you’re suicidal and anxiety spins around in the friend group and everyone gets more stressed. Hopefully there are some caring adults in the picture that the kids can turn to. And hopefully some professionals able to take the time to listen and act. But mostly it is our teenagers who are there for each other.
Young people can learn how to listen well, without ‘rarking up’ the situation. It’s so important to stay calm yourself, honour feelings, be a safe space for each other. It’s really helpful to be able to encourage your friends to breathe in and out, to check if they’ve eaten anything today. If your friend is calling you at 3 in the morning feeling suicidal, how can you help them relax and maybe even get some sleep? How can you relax and get to sleep yourself?
Here’s the messages we were giving kids at the seminar:
1: You can help!
Yes, professionals are good, but friends are so important and each of us can be a good friend.
Listening is vital. You can’t solve other people’s problems but you can show you care by listening well.
You’re no help if you’re too stressed out yourself, so know how to look after yourself.
Look for ways to improve wellbeing generally, both for yourself and your friends; so go for walks, spend time together, do something new, nurture faith … do what you know helps you feel OK.
2: If you’re worried, ask directly
How to ask if someone is suicidal:
- What are you looking forward to in the future?
- You said to me you’ve been feeling really down. I know this might be a hard question but have you thought of not being here?
- Are some days so bad that you think about suicide?
- Are you planning to kill yourself?
3: Make a safety plan
Call Youthline or Lifeline
Encourage them to see a doctor, counsellor, youth worker
Check in with them every day
You may need to tell someone else, even if they don’t want you to.
A parent’s worst nightmare
Tackling the hardest thing, Part C
We who are parents are rightly terrified of youth suicide. None of us are immune. Just last week we heard of the suicide of the son of an old friend and colleague of mine, one of our country’s leading youth ministry specialists. Even this family was not spared, not even with all the faith and support and skills and experience, not to mention great depths of compassion. We cannot love our kids enough to protect them. We carry this as a shared terror, for it confronts us to our core.
For our own child to take his or her life feels like the ultimate rejection of who we are as parents. For my own son to consider ending his life is to me as a mother a violation of the gift I gave him, a tearing of my own womb, that he might wish himself never-born, or that he sees no future, no hope, that he sees nothing but his pain. In that moment I myself do not exist for him. All I am, all I have been through for this child, all my hopes for him and his future and his children and how he might impact on the world … all is gone.
And we know because we have seen it the terrible effects of suicide; we know what it can cost in the lives of the parents, damaging health, marriage, careers, ministries. It’s the guilt that rips you apart, I’m told. For as a parent you believe that you could have prevented it, even while you know you could not, and this internal contradiction sucks all else into its vortex.
Some parents react to this with anger. Of course they do, I get it. The same person is both victim and perpertrator. Anger is a thing. Our fears may push us to control. Probably not helpful, but real enough.
Nearly 50 parents, grandparents (and others from the community) came to our Community Seminar on the Friday night. After the excellent presentations the time of questions and comments was very powerful. Parents shared the angst of living with a suicidal teenager, and trying in vain to get good professional help. They asked for support; thankfully our local Salvation Army youth pastor was there to gather up names with the intention of setting up a support group.
One of the things that struck me from the mental health nurses’ presentation was their observation that parents on the whole aren’t coping all that well with parenting teenagers: “Colleagues within CAF have noticed significant decrease around parental capacity”. Parents are more stressed and less available than they used to be. I’m quite worried about this. I think it is a powerful call to the church to be there for parents.
The thing is, these problems are not going away. They are getting worse. Many parents are seriously stretched in their ability to cope with life in general and miserable teenagers in particular. What are we doing about it?
Know the warning signs
Tackling the hardest thing, Part D
Here’s when you should really start to get worried about someone; if you notice that they are:
- Talking a lot about death.
- Saying things like ‘there’s no point any more’.
- Suddenly getting better after a long history of depression.
- Very low mood
- Giving away prized possessions
- Writing goodbye notes
- Significant negative changes/events, esp. a relationship break-up.
- Talking about wanting to die by suicide.
- Feeling hopeless; unable to name anything they are looking forward to in the future.
Here’s what you should do now so that you are ready to help:
1. Put the Suicide help line into your phone contacts: 0508 828 865
and Youthline: 0800376633, or txt 234
2. Get resources from the Mental Health Foundation. Excellent free stuff from their online shop. Have them at your church and give them away to other people. www.mentalhealth.org.nz
3. Find out about the youth mental health services in your area, and what their waiting lists are like. Check out the list of agencies through the Ministry of Social Development national data base: 4. www.familyservices.govt.nz/directory
4. If you dare, pray that God will bring you into these conversations so that you can work with Christ with people who are in hard places.
Younger and younger
Tackling the hardest thing, Part E
One of the most concerning aspects of the stats for youth suicide is the downward trend in age. The UNICEF country comparison for youth suicide only includes those aged 15-19, but in Christchurch 15 is the average age of referrals into our crisis mental health system. Children are killing themselves. It begars belief. Before they have even embarked on life they are deciding that life is not worth living.
I honestly don’t have anything to say about this, other than to express my overwhelming sorrow that our society is failing our children so badly. It just reinforces for me the desperate need for the church to be connecting with children and families to offer hope and meaning and belonging.
Sleep deprivation could make anyone feel suicidal!
Tackling the hardest thing, Part F
One simple factor is surprisingly key to youth mental health – sleep. Basically our teenagers are not getting nearly enough. At the youth seminar the presenter asked everyone to put up their hands, and he started with 9 hours and counted down, asking the kids to put down their hand when he called out the number of hours sleep they normally get. Most hands were still up at 7 hours, lots at 6 hours and many still up at 4 hours sleep. This is enough to make anyone miserable, even suicidal! Our brains need sleep. Young people are recommended to have 9 hours sleep per night. Yeah right!
I am old enough to remember the ‘Goodnight Kiwi’ on TV, and that I very rarely was still awake late enough to see it! It is such a big factor in our suicide rates that the world never sleeps these days. Teenagers are constantly connected, constantly available and communicating. The media targetting them has very deliberate strategies to discourage you from turning it off. Parents need support and strategies to encourage darkness and quiet and solitude. The simplest most basic of human needs have become so complex and problematic.
The church has wonderful resources to offer, in the form of Night Prayer, Psalms, and skills for resting in the presence of God at the end of the day. These are a pearl of great price today.
A mental health system failing to cope
Tackling the hardest thing, Part G
My son asked me to set up some counselling for his friend (age 15) who was seriously considering suicide. I had been doing my research, I had a list of several agencies offering youth mental health services in Christchurch, so I sat down and rang one, then another one, then another. Each kindly receptionist explained most apologetically how sorry she was that they were not taking new clients at the moment. Would I like to make an appointment in 3 months time?
These agencies are all good people, well trained, passionate about youth mental health. And they are stretched beyond their limits by the need. They are squeezed by lack of funding. Sue Bagshaw is a local legend. She and her husband set up 298 Youth Health Centre, providing free services for young people. It’s great. It’s overloaded. It has never been government funded.
If you call the 0800 number to the hospital mental health emergency services you’ll get ‘triaged’. If they decide you are critical you’ll get seen and assessed. If you’re really really critical you’ll get admitted into the psych ward. But most probably you’ll get referred on, to one of the overworked underfunded community agencies. Who might be able to see you in 3 months time. It’s no ones’s fault, it is just not good enough.
All surface, no depth, no tomorrow
Tackling the hardest thing, Part H
Several people have asked me why young people these days are so stressed and so miserable. The brain researchers tell us about the impact of chronic stress, and how the earthquakes affected children and hard-wired them for anxiety. Social researchers tell us about the effects of broken families, divorce and kids moving in and out of homes or living between 2 or 3 homes. Policy researchers tell us about the increasing inequality in our country, and how poverty affects children worst of all. Economics researchers describe a changing world where technology is everything, where there’ll be fewer jobs and even fewer long-term careers. Environmental researchers tell us about the damage to our planet and ecosystems, and warn of serious and unpleasant changes to our weather and our world.
Put all these together and we can perhaps begin to understand why young people can feel hopeless, fearful and depressed when they look at the world they are stepping into.
But there is one thing I particularly want to highlight: social media. I remember learning how to use a cell phone around the turn of the century. I remember the days before laptops and email, when you had to post an actually letter to someone. Young people are known as digital natives. They never knew a world before the internet and instant online communication. So let’s talk for a minute about what kind of world this is that they live in, and how this affects them.
The world of social media is a constant battle for attention. And the more attention the better. In social media the more friends or followers you have the better. It doesn’t matter whether you actually have anything to say, the fact that people are listening is all that matters.
Commentator Jeremy Schlosberg puts it this way: Social media creates
“a relentless focus on the surface and the exterior of things rather than the depth or interior of things. The social media milieu is information overload—there are endless streams to follow, interests to “pin,” pictures to look at, videos to watch; to operate in this setting effectively one must avoid the depth that might exist in people, places, and/or ideas. There just isn’t time. It is best, in fact, not even to recognize that there is any depth to be had. Just “like” it, share it, move on.”
He asks the question: “is this a human value? Is this how we want to live together? Racing breathlessly along the surface? Considering a near-infinite parade of exteriors, ignoring interiors?”
Can you for a moment imagine being constantly bombarded, constantly distracted, constantly entertained? Can you think yourself into a place where you are being constantly evaluated, where what we present on the outside is all that matters and where something new is demanded every couple of minutes?
The complex emotions of adolescence and issues facing our world just do not fit into 10-second videos or one-liner memes. Our digital instant universe prioritises the immediate. Nothing exists but NOW. Surely this teaches our kids that if they feel terrible and miserable and hopeless then that ‘now’ is forever? It’s clear to me how this leads into suicidal action, because our digital world is not helping kids stick things out or hold on until they feel better. It is not giving them substance to hang onto, or anything bigger than themselves and their own emotions to commit their lives to.
When there’s no forgiveness, failure is fatal
Tackling the hardest thing, Part I
The world of social media is a community where mistakes are unforgivable and punishment is instantaneous.
Commentator David Taylor writes: “Everyone is now just one stupid Facebook post, one poorly thought out Tweet, one racist, sexist, ageist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBT remark away from potential ruin.”
Social media is “a stage for constant artificial high drama.” Everyone has opinions about everyone else, and the more insulting the better. How different from Paul’s challenge to the church in Romans 14:1-12, which calls us to not judge others on our surface differences.
Forgiveness is so last millenia. Our young people live in a world in which second chances are rare, let alone 7th chances (refer Matthew 18:21-35)! If you stuff up, no one forgives. The internet never forgets: a bad photo or online hate-mail will always exist out there in cyber space. If forgiveness is not possible, then ending your life starts to look like a rational option.
I have every admiration for young people today, as they navigate their way through this utterly complex global space that the internet has created for them. I’m not anti-Facebook; but I do think we need to understand how our children and grandchildren’s lives are awash in this culture. It makes me even more determined to be active in grounding young people in real space, in the real world environment, and in real-time friendships face to face. Only then will they be able to survive, thrive and lead in both the actual world and the virtual world.
It is our task to tell them the Gospel stories so that they grasp the person and action of God, who is substance in a world of the superficial, and who is grace in a world of instant punishment. Our God, in Christ, is genuine community and friendship, more than a click or a ‘like’ or a hashtag.
Suicide, bullying and the nature of evil
Tackling the hardest thing, Part J
I can’t leave this topic without some exploration of the nature of evil. Whatever our theology we are confronted by the ‘wrongness’ of a young person wanting to kill themselves. For me I am willing to describe this as a outworking of personal evil spiritual power. As a follow of Jesus I take his words seriously. Jesus warned us very clearly about “the evil one”, a force at work in the universe running counter to the action of God. Jesus talked about the ‘evil one’ as the ‘father of lies’, a thief like a wolf attacking the flock trying to pick off the most vulnerable.
Tackling the hardest thing is not simply a matter for doctors and social workers, counsellors and social policy. This is work for people of faith because our children are being attacked at a spiritual level.
We’ve just bought an electric car, very cool. I thought the number plate was cool too; it starts “KYS”. ‘Kiss’ is a pretty funky number plate, I thought, if a little soppy. But when my 15-year-old saw it his reaction was very different. His face dropped. “Oh no” he said. “That’s terrible. Oh no!”. He informed me that ‘KYS’ now means for young people, “Kill Yourself”. It is often used in online bullying.
The UNESCO report (June 2017) summarised that 1 in 9 young people are victims of serious bullying, and suggested that rates in New Zealand were higher than this average. Online bullying is increasing, not helped by apps like Saraha that enable anonymous messages to be sent through Snapchat. Somehow this brings out the worst in human nature. Why are children so nasty to each other if they can get away with it? This cuts me to the heart, for it seems like the deepest flaw within us - ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ and all that. Our twin natures at war within us, ripping apart lives and families and fracturing society; on one hand our glory as children of God, on the other hand our fundamental sinfulness. Our children and teenagers experience this as having other people, even those they count as friends, saying to them “KYS”. Kill YourSelf.
What thick skins our kids need these days to survive. How can we help them be tough, tough enough to repel the most vicious attacks? Some children experience physical and mental or sexual abuse from the people closest to them. Many more experience bullying. All of them experience the pervasive insidious action of evil.
We fight not against flesh and bone but against the powers and principalities of darkness. And when we do we’d better be ready to face attack ourselves. It’s not going to be pretty. There is a lot at stake.
UNICEF: Building the Future report on Children and the Sustainable Development Goals in Rich Countries, Innocenti Report Card 14, June 2017