Teens and Suicide

When a 16-year-old Springfield Montgomery County Township student recently became despondent over bad grades and his parents' ensuing actions, the young man decided to take his own life. Fellow students, teachers, family and neighbors were stunned.

But this case is not that unusual, according to family psychologist Brad Sachs, Ph.D., author of When No One Understands: Letters to a Teenager on Life, Loss, and the Hard Road to Adulthood.

In fact, according to Sachs, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in eight adolescents suffers from depression. Additionally, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among adolescents (again, according to the NIMH), and the rate of suicide among 15- to 24-year-olds has tripled since 1960.

Of course, the burning question is why.

Says Sachs, it would be difficult to pinpoint just one cause. "However, I do believe one reason is that every adolescent is striving to create a life of purpose, and that our culture seems to do less and less in an effort to help young adults to do so. We focus so much on achievement, accomplishment, acquisitiveness and competition that the more enduring human values — such as kindness, generosity, compassion and ethics — are neglected or ignored altogether.

"We insist that 'you are what you have,' when in reality, it's who we are and how we love that ultimately defines the kind of person we become and how meaningful our lives are," he adds.

With other books dedicated to the art of raising children targeted to parents, Sachs says he decided to write this more for teenagers: "While there are chapters to help parents and professionals understand adolescents, I wanted this book to carry my beliefs and messages directly to the adolescent audience."

Which is why, he explains, he hit upon this unique method of corresponding through letters, and hopefully, helping a young teen named Amanda come to grips with her life and problems.

"The traditional method of psychotherapy that is offered to adults has little relevance, appeal or value when it comes to working with adolescent patients," he says. "Some will tolerate it better than others, but few will change in significant and enduring ways as a result.

"In Amanda's case, I noted that she had excelled in her English classes, and clearly was comfortable with reading and writing, so I thought that composing letters to her in between sessions would be one way to help her to see that there are many ways for individuals to communicate with each other."

While the correspondence went both ways, the book includes only the doctor's letters to his young patient, although he acknowledges that he originally envisioned the book as a dialogue.

"However, several of the people who read the draft of the book found that reading Amanda's letters had a distancing effect, making it difficult for them to apply what I had to say to their lives, and becoming distracting to the reader. They were simply too focused on Amanda's life and its attendant drama."

Sachs urges parents to seek alternate methods of communication as well. Sometimes, he explains, it might take the form of a consensual verbal exchange.

"Parents can also write letters, stuff notes in backpacks, send e-mail, get an Instant Messenger or take walks together with their children, and somehow find new ways to exchange thoughts, feelings and love."

And always be on the lookout for problems — as well as solutions. Becoming a good parent depends on explaining the rules, not simply ordering a teen to do something "because I say so."

It's about "hearing your child out, respecting their boundaries and more," he notes.

The parent of three teenage children himself, Sachs says that many of his methods for dealing with adolescents are embedded in Jewish tradition, including the idea of finding alternative ways of communicating, and the idea of writing and corresponding.

"The idea of viewing people who are troubled compassionately, the idea that problems are really solutions to problems — all have their roots in the Jewish tradition that speaks to understanding, generosity of spirit and compassion." 



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