By Kyra Young
Everybody, no matter what age, is faced with pressure to fit in. In the teenage years, though, this pressure can be even stronger. Today’s teens are under extraordinary pressure to be perfect, to fit into a mold that doesn’t actually exist. Yet no matter how many Shake It Off and All About That Base videos are made, there is still an expectation for teens and young adults to be something that is impossible to become.
But why? What makes them so driven to fit in? Dr. Brené Brown, a researcher/storyteller with a Ph.D. in social work, says that “connection is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” According to her research, we are neurobiologically wired to have the ability to feel connected. In her TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” she discusses her research on shame, which she defines as a fear of disconnection, which can arise from one’s vulnerability. Everyone has experienced this at some point: that feeling that if you show your true colors, people around you won’t like you, or won’t want to be around you.
Brown says that to cope with this fear, we numb it. We numb our vulnerability, grief, and awkwardness, because we feel like that will solve the problem. However, the problem with numbing your feelings is that you can’t just selectively numb them. So when we numb those uncomfortable emotions, we also numb the positive ones, and end up depressed and miserable. In the case of teens and young adults, it’s at this point in the emotional roller coaster that danger can strike.
Teen Suicide Continues to Rise
The most recent suicide capturing media attention was the death of transgender teen Leelah (Joshua) Alcorn. The 17-year-old student was born a boy, but identified as a woman. She committed suicide on Dec. 28, after months of forced disconnection from her school and friends as her parents pulled her from school in order to discourage her transition.
In her suicide letter, Alcorn wrote about her fear of never feeling connected to the world around her:
“I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself.”
Sadly, Alcorn’s story is far too common. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in 2012, young adults aged 15 to 24 had a suicide rate of 10.9 out of every 100,000. In the same year, 40,600 suicides were reported, which amounts to one suicide every 12.9 minutes.
Lines for Life
Many local drivers have seen the bulletin boards (sponsored by Samaritan Hospital) advertising a free help line for students and young adults battling depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as other teen and youth issues. Oregon YouthLine is a free and confidential 24-hour teen-to-teen crisis, counseling, and referral line for youth. In hopes of helping teens to feel more comfortable talking about their problems, YouthLine has teen volunteers working from 4 to 10 p.m., and has trained them to take calls, chat online, and even accept texts from struggling members of their own age group.
According to Lines for Life, the umbrella organization responsible for managing four crisis hotlines, including YouthLine, volunteers go through more than 60 hours of training before they ever answer a phone, and are trained to listen carefully and respond with answers that are specific to unique situations.
Lines for Life offers four different hotlines: a suicide hotline for severe crisis, an alcohol and drug abuse line, YouthLine, and also a military line for active duty and veteran members and their families. The hotlines receive around 33,000 calls a year, and they receive a call from a person contemplating suicide every 15 minutes. According to Lines for Life statistics, 98 percent of suicide calls made to the hotline are deescalated to the point that the caller does not even need intervention.
Signs to Look Out for
There are no set signs of suicide, and sometimes people contemplating suicide can hide things so well that no one would know. However, there are some things you can look out for: seclusion, (when the person keeps away from others, and makes no lasting connections), expressing feelings of hopelessness or of being trapped, wondering aloud if people would miss them if they were gone, or saying things like “I just don’t see a way out.” If you see any of these signs, or just have a gut feeling, the best and most important thing to do is to talk to your loved one or friend.
Most suicidal people will not lie if asked about suicide, and will feel relieved to be able to talk about it. Remember to keep an open mind, and offer to help them with calling a crisis line or seeing a professional mental health specialist. Another thing you can do to help prevent suicide is to remember that the things you do and say have an effect on other people. As Brown presents in her research, while we pretend that our actions or inaction don’t affect others, they quite often have a greater impact than we imagine.
You can get more information on suicide prevention at a workshop offered by Oregon State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) on Jan. 27, March 10, and May 14. For more information or to register, visit: http://counseling.oregonstate.edu/feature-story/gatekeeper-training-free-suicide-prevention-workshops.