Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Note: I’ve updated this column twice, as this is Suicide Prevention Week. Please listen to the young people in your life. I wrote Nonnie Talks about Mental Health in May of 2021. The book is for trusted adults and young people and begins with a college student who attempts suicide.

I do focus groups for all the books in The Nonnie Series. These comments from children in the Nonnie/Mental Health book group underscore the need for open communication about mental health.

“My mom is sad all the time. But no one in our family talks about it.”

- Third grader

“I hate myself. I hate the way I look. I hate my family. I hate school. I hate COVID. I guess I just hate everything right now.”

- Sixth grader

“My friend is depressed and won’t talk with anyone but me.”

- Eighth grader

Please remember, children and teens may not easily share their feelings. People are like onions, with many layers of defense mechanisms. Be there and earn trust.

Q. As a teen, school years can be complicated and demanding. You are not sure who you are, what you want to be, or whether the choices you make from day to day are the best decisions. Sometimes, the many changes and pressures feel overwhelming. You can feel down and the pain seems unbearable, and it won’t go away. There are times when you feel maybe you would better off not around anymore. So how do you know if someone you care about is contemplating suicide and what sort of things can contribute to feeling this way? What can I do about it and who should I tell?

- Concerned Adult

Mary Jo Response: Thank you for your email. I believe all adults should take the time to be aware of the signs of depression in adolescents.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) states suicide is the second leading cause of death for children, adolescents and young adults age 15- to 24-years old. Adolescence can be a time of stress, confusion and self-doubt, filled with pressure to succeed, questions about sexual orientation and financial uncertainty.

Parental divorce or even moving to a new community can intensify self-doubts. For some teens, suicide may appear to be a solution to their problems. Many of the symptoms of suicidal feelings are similar to depression.

Teen depression should not be ignored.

The majority of children and adolescents who attempt suicide have a significant mental health disorder, usually depression.

The AACAP lists the following teen warning signs for caring adults and parents:

  • Change in eating and sleeping habits;
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities;
  • Violent actions, rebellious behavior, or running away;
  • Drug and alcohol use;
  • Unusual neglect of personal appearance;
  • Marked personality change;
  • Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, or a decline in the quality of schoolwork;
  • Frequent complaints about physical symptoms, often related to emotions, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, etc.;
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities;
  • Not tolerating praise or rewards.

A teen who is considering suicide may also:

  • Complain of being a bad person or feeling rotten inside;
  • Give verbal hints with statements such as: I won’t be a problem for you much longer, Nothing matters, It’s no use, and I won’t see you again;
  • Put his or her affairs in order, for example, give away favorite possessions, clean his or her room, throw away important belongings, etc.;
  • Become suddenly cheerful after a period of depression;
  • Have signs of psychosis, such as hallucinations or bizarre thoughts.

Please get help from a professional if you are concerned about a teen’s mental health. To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-8255. The Trevor Project is dedicated to saving LGBTQ teen lives. To reach its 24-hour lifeline, call 1-866-488-7386.

For more information, visit www.aacap.org.

The Washington County Crisis Line is 1-877-225-3567; it is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Thanks for caring about young people.

Peer Educator Response: We think you being concerned about young people is a good thing, as long as you don’t assume you know what their behavior means. It’s complicated and tricky. Don’t diagnosis us – get professional support and help. Respect teens and try not to stereotype us into one bunch. We’re all different, just like adults. Finally, really listen to teens. Depression is a lot more common than most adults think. Be alert and be aware.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!

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