The goal downfield is to avoid being the armchair quarterback.
All too often, people only notice red flags after a tragedy occurs.
“The signs were there. How did we miss it?” Those words come up time and time again.
The key to helping troubled teens is to look for sudden drastic changes in their behavior, outlook, appearance or passion for what they value.
“The No. 1 thing is trust your gut,” said Samantha Benz, central and eastern Pennsylvania area director of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.
Her advice is to pay attention to the uncharacteristic. There might be something dark and desperate behind the happy-go-lucky youth who turns angry or agitated or the active student who loses interest before withdrawing from a sport or extra-curricular activity.
To Johanna Jones, a counselor at Carlisle High School, a teen in trouble may be the A-B student now struggling with D’s and F’s or the normally upbeat and energetic student who comes into school dragging.
Problems in one area of school or home life could compound issues elsewhere and make the situation worse. For example, a student who draws motivation from sports may experience stress and anxiety that causes him to falter and his grades to fall below the eligibility requirements for athletics.
“So now they are not playing their sport,” Jones said. The student loses a big reason that he bothers with school in the first place. His motivation slips further, as does his grades.
There are two ways that mental health issues can show up in a teenager, said JoAnn Coslett, a psychologist at Cumberland Valley High School.
The youth can internalize the issue by holding it in and letting it develop into a deeper form of anxiety or depression. They could also externalize the issue by acting mad, bad or sad.
“Huge changes in behavior in any direction are usually an indicator something is wrong,” Coslett said.
Here are some other warning signs to watch for:
- Reckless behavior
- Giving away prize possessions
- Making statements like “I don’t want to go on” in-person or on social media
- Looking disheveled or fatigued
- Difficulty with concentration
- Sleeping too much or too little
The teenager may have a morbid fascination with death, Jones said. She said the high school computer network has the ability to flag certain words on internet searches made by students.
“There have been situations where we have uncovered kids who have really been feeling low,” Jones said. But there have been other cases where the student is just doing a class project or is interested in horror movies.
There is also the opposite end of the spectrum where the struggling teenager may seem upbeat and happy because deep down they now view suicide as a way out of the pain.
The best way to help a troubled teen is to have a conversation and just listen, Benz said. “A lot of times kids will open up to you. They are just waiting for someone to ask them ‘Are you OK?’ or to say ‘I’m concerned about you.’
“You can ask them directly about suicide,” Benz added. There is a myth that talking about suicide leads teens to commit suicide. “Chances are they are already thinking about it. Just let them know you care and that their life matters to you. If you approach them honestly and without judgment, they would probably open up.”
“The one standard rule is you cannot ignore and you cannot dismiss,” said Joel Hain, principal of Boiling Springs High School. “Don’t wish it away or say it is a phase. ... Talk to them.
“Every kid is different,” Hain said. “Find someone the teen can connect with. If it’s not a parent or principal, is there a teacher or coach who can make a positive connection.”
Above all, avoid offering a suicidal person advice like “Just try to be happy” or “Try not to think about it,” Benz said. There are no quick fixes to what is troubling a person who could read what you are saying as dismissive.
If someone is threatening or attempting to kill themselves, call 911 and stay with the person until help arrives, Benz said. Only leave if your personal safety is at risk.
“If you are worried about somebody, but don’t know how to handle it, call the national hotline on their behalf,” Benz said. The person who answers will offer advice on how you can help the person directly or connect them with a resource.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. It provides 24/7 access to free and confidential support for people in distress along with prevention and crisis resources.