Teen Lifeline, a Phoenix-based crisis intervention and suicide hotline, has been helping Arizona teens and their families for 33 years. The nonprofit staffs its call centers with dozens of trained teenagers — ages 15 to 19 — who lend a caring ear to peers nightly year-round.
Still, in this age of nonstop social media feeds and a divisive national dialogue, teen suicide rates have been on the rise. Nikki Kontz, clinical director at Teen Lifeline, talks about the alarming fact that callers are getting younger. She also offers advice on what parents (and all of us as a society) can do to notice the signs of depression and help put kids on a path of problem-solving, resilience and hope, rather than isolation and fear:
Q: The teen suicide rate is rising nationally and in Arizona. How bad is it, and why do you think it’s rising?
A: Arizona did see the teen suicide rate rise from 2016 to 2017. Suicide rates increased both among teens and across all age groups in 2017.
Suicide is a complicated issue. There is never just one problem in someone’s life that leads them to have thoughts of suicide. Because of the many variables, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly why the teen suicide rate may be rising. But, we have some hypotheses. First, we know there are not enough mental health professionals to provide quick intervention and support to individuals who need it. Second, our divisive climate nationwide tends to affect people’s view of the future. Our children feel that divisiveness. It’s tough to be a teenager in 2018-19. There’s a lot of added pressure that teens feel as they try to navigate a world that isn’t always good at helping them cope with diversity and change.
Q: I understand your callers have gotten younger?
A: In 2017, we received 20,000 calls and 1,200 text messages from troubled youth throughout Arizona. Of those, 16 percent came from children younger than 13. I would say it’s not uncommon for us to get callers as young as 10 or 11 years old.
I do think puberty plays a role in our callers reaching out at younger ages. Puberty is starting earlier, but brain development is not. Oftentimes our children are experiencing feelings and issues caused by puberty for the very first time, before they have the brain development or the coping skills that come with maturity to know how to handle those feelings.
It’s important to note our kids are also experiencing other things earlier than ever before. With technology and social media, our children have more access to things going on in the world. They are beginning to compare themselves to others earlier. They are more inundated by what’s happening on the news than ever before. Understandably, they have a lot of questions that we as adults need to be better at answering. We can also be better at teaching them coping and resiliency skills.
Q: Is social media part of the problem?
A: While social media can be part of the problem, I would not list it as one of the main factors contributing to teen suicide. In fact, the 2017 Child Fatality Review shows the top four factors that contributed to teen suicide in Arizona were a history of family discord, a history of substance abuse, arguments with parents and a recent break-up.
It’s also important to note that [social] media isn’t always bad. We know one of the protective factors that prevents suicide is a sense of connectedness. Technology and social media provide that connection for many children that would otherwise feel alone. It is how they stay connected with their peers.
Q: How many teens volunteer at Teen Lifeline, and why do you think it’s effective for teens to answer the phones?
A: One of the reasons our hotline is so successful is because of our peer counseling model. If you think back to when you were a teenager, did you want to talk to an adult about your problems or to another teen? Our peer counselors understand what it is like to be a teenager today, to deal with social media and issues with friends, because they are living a similar experience. While something like an argument with a friend may seem insignificant to an adult, other teens empathize with how immense and overwhelming it can feel to one of our callers.
We have an average of 90 teen volunteers from throughout Maricopa County who volunteer a total of nearly 20,000 hours of their time to staff the Teen Lifeline hotline every year. Each of our volunteers receives a minimum of 72 hours of training. Our peer counselors are always supervised by a masters-level behavioral health clinician when answering calls. Our volunteers range in age from 15 to 19, and are available by phone or text from 3-9 p.m. every day of the year, even on weekends and holidays. Any other time of the day or night, calls to our hotline are answered by an adult crisis counselor at the Crisis Response Network.
Q: I understand parents can also call to learn how to better help their child. What type of advice do you give parents?
A: First, we talk with parents about the warning signs of suicidal thoughts and what they should look for. These include:
- Talking about death, wanting to die or feelings of falling apart
- Changes in sleeping or eating habits
- Feeling depressed, sad or hopeless for more than two weeks
- Extreme mood swings
- Isolating or withdrawing from friends, family or usual social activities
Essentially, you’re looking for drastic changes in usual behavior. For teens, depression can look like a depressed mood, withdrawal, isolation or an overall feeling of helplessness. The risk of suicide is greater if these behaviors are new or have increased because of a painful event, a loss or a change in the teen’s life. Then, we talk through concrete steps parents can take if they are concerned their child may be considering suicide:
- Keep the lines of communication open, and make sure you are taking your teen’s concerns seriously.
- Don’t be afraid to ask your child directly if they’re considering harming themselves or if they have thoughts about suicide. Asking the question won’t plant ideas in your child’s head and it may give you important insight into your teen’s state of mind.
- Secure anything your child could use to harm himself or herself. For example, make sure all firearms are removed from the house or locked up so only you can access them. Remember that teens are great at knowing and guessing passcodes and finding keys. Keep all medicines, razors and other items teens could use to cause physical harm secured.
- Finally, we help parents identify resources in their community where they can seek additional help for their teen.
Q: You’ve recently been working with schools to get the Teen Lifeline number added to school IDs?
A: The Teen Lifeline hotline number is currently on the back of school IDs at more than 150 middle schools and high schools throughout Arizona, reaching nearly 200,000 students.
Having our number readily available for students does seem to be helping, in several different ways. First, more teens are reaching out for help when they need it. Second, we’ve also found that having the number on the back of school IDs has begun to change the culture on campuses. Again, we know that kids who feel connected are at decreased risk for suicide. Schools that have the hotline number on their IDs and make sure that students know how to use it, are making sure their students know they care and are there to support them through life’s challenges. We have had students report feeling a greater sense of connectedness and hope that someone cares, even if they’ve never called the hotline for help.
Q: What are some other things we could be doing to decrease the number of teen suicides?
A: As a society, we can always do a better job of creating resiliency by teaching our kids basic coping skills. We need to talk to our kids about how to reach out for help and support, even when they may have lost hope.
As adults, we know that happiness isn’t a constant feeling of euphoria or being problem-free all the time. Life happens. It’s important to teach our children and teens how to deal with the challenges that will come their way throughout their lives. The top three coping skills that we walk through with every caller and that we encourage parents of children of all ages to teach their children are:
• Talking about your problems. Kids need practice verbalizing their feelings. And when they do tell you what’s going on in their lives, they need to feel validated. Not every teen feels comfortable talking with his or her parents. That’s OK. Help your child identify other appropriate adults he or she would feel comfortable talking to, like a relative, a teacher, a coach or a member of the clergy.
• Solving problems. The ability to consider viable options to solve problems is a skill that will benefit your child forever. When your child is facing a difficult situation, sit down together and brainstorm options for creating healthy solutions. Have your child think through the pros and cons. Let your child make his or her own choice and check in regularly to see if the situation is improving. Make sure your child understands that he or she won’t be able to fix every problem right away, and that’s OK.
• Relieving stress. Since most problems will not be solved overnight, kids need ideas for how to relax during the midst of the problem they’re dealing with.
Q: This hotline was created after a 1985 movie put a national spotlight on teen suicide. Has the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” again put teen suicide into the spotlight?
A: Yes, “13 Reasons Why” has launched a national conversation about teen suicide much like the 1985 made-for-TV movie “Surviving.” The opinion of experts in the suicide prevention field is that “13 Reasons Why” glamorizes teen suicide and depicts some things in a way that may be harmful to teens. For teens who may be struggling to find hope or are struggling with the issues portrayed, it may actually be harmful. The show does not do a good job of showing positive problem-solving or ways of coping.
However, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. We know kids are watching “13 Reasons Why.” This is an opportunity for parents to have honest conversations with their kids about the issues teens are facing today. I encourage parents to watch it along with their teens and openly discuss the issues addressed without judgment. Allow your kids a chance to explore other, better choices that the characters could have made. Visit teenlifeline.org for more specific information about how to talk with your child about “13 Reasons Why.” Our Facebook page also has videos about the major plot themes to discuss with your child.
Reach Teen Lifeline: 1-800-248-8336 (TEEN) or teenlifeline.org
Kara G. Morrison is the editor of Raising Arizona Kids and the mother of Sofia (6). Reach her at kara(at)rakmagazine.com