For the Life of Our Teens: Suicide in Focus

October 21, 2019

Even now, his mom describes him as a typical kid. "He was a scout leader, an athlete, had a girlfriend, and led youth group at church." Talking about him in the past tense isn't easy. And for Julia, like so many hurting parents, it will never get easier. Her son Liam took his own life -- and even as a teacher with a degree in counseling, she never saw it coming.

Today, there are thousands of other moms and dads just like Julia, struggling to make sense of the loss. Looking back, some of the pieces fit together. Maybe he was too perfectionistic, she says now. He'd started struggling in some of his high school classes, and he was on medication that may have exacerbated his anxiety. Now, hoping other parents will be more vigilant, Julia warns about social media and how faith communities could do more to facilitate a discussion about kids' personal struggles.

That conversation was never more needed than now, as the CDC bowled people over with the news that teen suicide isn't just on the rise -- it's out of control. In the 10-year span between 2007-2017, the number of kids who took their own lives jumped 56 percent. Worse, no one seems to know what or who is responsible. Experts have speculated on everything from teenagers' time online to the glamorization of suicide on shows like Netflix's 13 Reasons Why. While no one can know for sure, Dr. Steve Grcevich, founder and president of Key Ministry, says there are things every family can monitor.

On Friday's "Washington Watch," he agreed it's a "complex situation." But, he went on, the structures that we've had in place to protect the emotionally vulnerable kids are also eroded. "When I look at this over the last 10 years," he told Sarah Perry, "there are three trends that I would identify that I think folks need to look at more closely. The first is smartphones. This propensity that kids have to negatively compare themselves to other people is a lot greater when you have access to Instagram and Snapchat." Dr. Grcevich just returned from a research meeting with the American Academy of Child Psychiatry where a new study was presented. It found that kids who spent three or more hours on their portable electronic devices were 60 percent more likely to develop depression than kids who use them for an hour a day or less.

The second concern he says parents should have is the "emphasis in our culture on sexual expression." It's no secret, he points out that "rates of suicidal thinking and behavior increased dramatically when teens start to violate sexual boundaries. When we're looking at data... teenagers who had sexual contact with a member of the same sex and or and opposite sex were 12 times more likely to require medical attention for a suicide attempt compared to those kids who weren't sexually active. When kids start crossing sexual boundaries," Dr. Grcevich warned, "that is oftentimes where we see these large spikes in suicidal behavior."

Finally, he urged, families need to be especially aware of the diminishing role of religion in the lives of our teens. He pointed to the Pew Foundation study that came out last week showing seven million fewer adult Christians in the United States that there were 10 years ago. That's a concern, he explained, since suicidal thinking and behavior is markedly lower for teens with parents "for whom faith was important." Today's millennials, he notes, "are the first generation of Americans in which Christians are in the minority. And I wouldn't doubt that the situation is even worse for those who are in generation Z."

So what should parents do? Well, Grcevich suggests, "One of the things that I would look at -- if my kids were of that age again -- they wouldn't be getting smartphones until they're well into high school." And only then, he followed up, it would be with "very close parental supervision." The second thing, he said, is an emphasis on faith. More research is starting to show that "kids who pray on a regular basis are significantly less likely to develop depression than kids in the general population."

"As a parent, one of the things that I would be trying to do is to cultivate the importance of faith in family life -- regularly praying together as a family, studying the Bible, [even] serving together. Because, interestingly enough, in the same study out of Virginia Tech, they didn't see [a big] relationship between church attendance, youth group participation and a decreased risk for suicide. It was only when the kids had internalized their faith and were practicing and on their own and truly had like a relationship with God that it seemed to offer protective value."