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We Need To Spot Mental Distress In Teens Before It's Too Late

05/22/2013 08:13 EDT | Updated 07/22/2013 05:12 EDT
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A study was released yesterday that suggested youth exposed to suicide from their peers were more likely to attempt it themselves. The study, titled "Association between exposure to suicide and suicidality outcomes in youth," was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and authored by Sonja Swanson and Ian Coleman.

The study suggests that youth 12 to 13 years old were most likely to commit suicide when exposed to their friends' suicides, while youth 16 to 17 years old were least likely -- though a trend was still noted in this category. Researchers used data from the Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Children & Youth from 1998 to 2007. This study speaks volumes despite lacking geographical data, whether or not the youth had a history of mental illness, and other factors.

I have blogged extensively about my previous suicide attempts, the uphill battle I faced, and how grateful I am to survive. I am not surprised that researchers are suggesting youth of 12 and 13 years old are most vulnerable. I want all of you to think about your experience in grade 7 and 8. Think about the events that unfolded. You started dating, puberty was in full force, you were getting ready for high school, and social etiquette was always on your mind. Maybe social media didn't exist yet while you were in school, but I'm almost certain it is proving challenging to young people within social circles.

Middle school and high school can be a very trying and challenging time for young people; it is why I dropped out. As a mental health advocate, I cringe at admitting that I am not surprised at what the study is suggesting. Many young people often befriend one other person -- calling themselves best friends forever, or BFFs. They tend to affect and influence each other.

However BFFs can offer a tremendous offer of support to each other. Therefore it doesn't surprise me if a youth kills themselves, that their closest friend contemplates it. I am in no way agreeing that suicide is OK (in fact I'm doing the exact opposite), but as somebody with relevant experience I do empathize with youth in these situations. I can't imagine what it is like to lose my best friend and it is easy to see the temptation youth face and the thoughts they face during the grieving process.

I believe more research is needed to investigate in-depth what the study is suggesting to get a much clearer understanding of the facts. School boards are underfunded and teachers are overworked. But as I have a habit of saying in this forum: "Lives are at stake." We cannot put a price on a life.

Teachers must be trained to identify emotional distress in students, and any subtle changes must be noted. But we also must teach other kids about emotional health in school, just as we teach them about sex, drugs, and Shakespeare. Parents and caregivers need to be more observant of their children, and have open lines of communication with the school. We must teach our kids it's OK for them to say they're not OK.