Suicidal ideation often emerges in adolescence, particularly among females. Girls are about twice as likely as boys to report considering suicide (22 vs.12 percent), and to attempt suicide (9 vs. 5 percent). The number of emergency room visits and admissions for suicide attempts and suicide ideation in young persons more than doubled during the period 2008 to 2017, with the rates highest in adolescent girls. I counsel a lot of teen girls who have suicidal thoughts, yet I find most of them are not really suicidal. So, what is really going on for them?
Most commonly, overwhelm. Girls have become experts at stuffing their emotions through busyness and distractions. The cost is that feelings and negative thoughts accumulate to the point of overload. Teen girls report feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, and they don’t know why. A 2013 study of college students found that 89% of females felt overwhelmed by all they had to do and 33% felt so depressed it was difficult to function.
When emotions have built up to the point of overwhelm, they tend to leak out in predictable ways. Girls snap at people who don’t deserve it. They often have a hard time falling asleep and sleeping soundly, and sleep deficits makes everything worse. Girls frequently feel more anxious, they report feeling blah and losing their motivation, or they may feel distracted. Many of the girls I counsel don’t merit a diagnosis of anxiety disorder or depression even though they often experience some symptoms of these disorders.
Parents worry about their daughters and often come at them with their traditional “50 questions”. This frequently provokes girls and an argument ensues. At the height of their frustration and anger, girls may blurt out that they want to kill themselves or wonder if life is worth living. What they are most often saying under these words is, “I am feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, and don’t know why or how to get relief.” That is the point at which girls are taken to the ER for evaluation.
I teach girls to recognize the signs and symptoms as mentioned above of when they are starting down the path of becoming overwhelmed. I encourage them to adopt healthy ways to express all of their emotions. Some girls talk it out with a parent, best friend, or a counselor. Others release feelings and thoughts through journaling, writing stories or poetry or songs. Others find their outlet through their artwork. I urge girls to exercise at least four times a week. And I encourage them to cultivate regular quiet, alone time to access and process through their thoughts and feelings.
I would never dismiss your daughter’s feelings or ignore her cries for help. She probably needs some short-term counseling to understand what’s going on inside her and to learn tools to handle and prevent her overwhelm. Adolescent girls have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and experience more cyberbullying compared to boys, all strong risk factors associated with suicidal thoughts. Acquiring tools to deal with these issues would help prevent overwhelm and suicidal ideations. Teach her to tell you she’s feeling stressed out or overwhelmed or hopeless vs. threaten to commit suicide. This makes it easier for parents to hang in there and listen to their daughters. Threatening suicide probably merits an immediate trip to the ER to ensure she is not a threat to herself.
It is crucial that you get to the bottom of what is really going on whenever your daughter has suicidal thoughts. Most importantly, teach her tools to prevent overwhelm so that she doesn’t get to that point.
For more information on this topic, check out Dr. Jordan’s book: Sleeping Beauties, Awakened Women: Guiding the Transformation of Adolescent Girls