One faith perspective on teen suicide

In the past five months, three teenagers have committed suicide in Palo Alto (more on this from the San Francisco Chronicle). On Monday evening, six people from different faith traditions were on a panel to talk about how persons of faith might respond to this community tragedy.

I attended the panel on Monday night, and listening to what people said raised an interesting question for me: What might we as Unitarian Universalists say about teen suicide? Here are some of the things I thought about:

— As Unitarian Universalists, we do not see suicide as sinful or evil; that is, if a teen commits suicide, we would consider it to be a tragedy, but we would not say that that teenager (or parents/guardians and extended family) was committing a sin.

— As Unitarian Universalists, we would be unlikely to blame God or any deity for teen suicide (assuming we believe in God or a deity of some kind). We would understand suicide to be a human problem which has its source in what we as humans do.

— As Unitarian Universalists, we support gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning persons fully; we do not think there is something wrong or sinful about GLBTQ persons. We are also aware that some research indicates a much higher suicide rate among GLBTQ teens, and therefore we would want to be extra supportive of GLBTQ teens.

— Coming from our Universalist heritage, we know that all persons are worthy of love, and have inherent worth and dignity. If someone wants to commit suicide because of terminal illness, that’s one thing — but when a healthy teenaged person commits suicide, we are struck by the tragedy of losing a unique person who is worthy of love and who has inherent worth and dignity.

I know some of you will have additional thoughts and meditations teen suicide, and please feel free to add them in the comments below.

8 thoughts on “One faith perspective on teen suicide

  1. Bill Baar

    A friends nephew committed suicide last year. The family never saw this coming and Major Depression can often show few or no signs that would warn anyone. Suicide’s prevelance peaks –among men at least– with the young dips in middle age and then peaks again with age. Depression is so easily treated and so few get it and I would like to think with better screening people would get treated.

    Anyways, while I agree with all you write above, you omit this is a often the outcome of a disease process, and one we should be well aware of especially if we work with youth (or seniors).

    I just had one of those jolly emails from a UU about my being an unwelcome conspiracy theorists when it comes to the end-of-life consuling in HR3200.

    Well, I deal with suicide among seniors and have witnessed the devastation among families with teens. Family and often your old Primary Care Doc two groups who totally fail to pick up the often subtle indicators. Depression a prevelant, often subtle, disorder. We should be more aware of it, intervene, and be very careful what we say.

    I feel the same away about some UU’s when they get onto the ethical eating frames. They need to be aware of the prevalence of eating disorders and the certainty someone in the congregation is working through one, and be especially careful how the lecture on ethical eating ought to include the notion that one of our most important ethical obligations is to eat in a healthy way… even if that means a steak once in a while.

  2. Dan

    Bill @ 1 — Thanks for your comments on suicide and its relation to mental health. But let’s keep this discussion focused on teen suicide — mixing this discussion with the discussion on health care reform is pretty far off topic — and I don’t want to digress in to a discussion of eating disorders at the moment either (although now that you’ve brought it up, I think I’ll plan to do a post on eating disorders in the near future).

    Having said that, what I think you’re bringing out is that as Unitarian Universalists, we do not attach any religious stigma to mental illness. This does not, however, imply that our congregations are particularly good at supporting people with mental illness — we’re not — but another feature of UUism is that we are open to using the insights of science, and so therefore we are far more likely to help people seek treatment for mental illness from medical professionals, than to try to “cure” mental illness through religion only — that is, we’re fine with people praying for someone with depression, but we also want to help that person with depression seek prompt and appropriate medical attention.

    And this particularly applies to teens and their families. The teen years can place stress on a family, especially if the teen is suffering from mental illness. UU congregations can offer solid support to those families through supporting the family in helping the teen seek treatment; affirming that we do not place a stigma on mental illness; and reaching out to that family as best we can.

    As far as the Palo Alto teen suicides, I have been told that one of the teens who committed suicide showed no signs of depression or any other mental illness. Just to reiterate the obvious: Teens with depression are more likely to commit suicide, but that doesn’t mean that all depressed teens commit suicide, nor does it mean that all teens who commit suicide are depressed. For the record, other teen groups that have high suicide rates include GLBTQ teens, and teens who have been bullied.

  3. Ms. M

    sad news never ends – just a quick note of those many teen deaths from cars and drugs and violence that are not always attributed to suicide but may be…

    thinking today of family grieving…and how the “what if” questions of a young death always ripple outward…

    Some other time I might have the clarity to say more about how UU congregations/leaders (despite theology and nice intentions) are lacking in skills and intention to minister to the many many many youth in the congregation who suddenly (or not so suddenly) stop coming, get into “trouble” of some sort and end up in a treatment facility or “school out of state” without anyone reaching out…(and parents/siblings who in striving to keep such things private keep a cycle of isolation and shame in motion, too)…

  4. Glen

    When I was a teen I spent most of those years fantasizing about suicide due to being gay AND a near-constant victim of bullying (I was once beaten into unconciousness and no, I never told anyone). I got through it–barely.
    I have been a youth group advisor for over 10 years. To listen to our group’s members at any given meeting you would think that none of them have any concerns whatsoever, yet at a worship service they held during one of their meetings, all of us advisors were surprised to hear how many of them had considered suicide at one time in their past.
    I have long said that it is unfair to expect behavior by our denomination’s youth that we don’t expect from our adults. At my church, people tend to “disappear” when they are going through very difficult times — often returning to whatever faith they grew up in — and return once the crisis has been handled and can, as one person put it to me, “put my Sunday face on again.”
    As an advisor I think it is especially encumbent on me to prove my trustworthiness so that a group member in pain will see me as someone safe inwhich to confide. People want to be heard. If we, as spiritual people, train our ears to really hear the youth in our congregations, rather than fear them or idealize them, we can be instrumental in preventing suicide (and a host of other destructive behavior).

  5. Wayne Smith

    Dan writes: “If someone wants to commit suicide because of terminal illness, that’s one thing — but when a healthy teenaged person commits suicide, we are struck by the tragedy of losing a unique person who is worthy of love and who has inherent worth and dignity.”

    It seems more than “one thing” if someone with a terminal illness considers suicide. Different than for a healthy person of any age, not just a teenager, it seems to me but I’d also want us to remain mindful that if a person with a terminal illness wants to commit suicide, it may not be their best decision by any means: advice and support from ministers, doctors, and loved one, for example, may lead the person to another choice than suicide or euthanasia. From what I understand, in Oregon, where physician-assisted euthanasia is legal, is it not, many people do not opt for it. Even if death seems certain, there may be ways to go into it than suicide and there is a danger that someone with a terminal illness may opt for suicide due to depression.

    So you may have been focused on teens (without a terminal illness) when you made this blog entry but please don’t discount that for people with what seems to be a terminal illness suicide/euthanasia may not be “one thing”: they too are “unique person who is worthy of love and who has inherent worth and dignity” whose loss will be felt.

  6. Dan

    Ms. M @ 3 — Alas, yes, many UU congregations lack solid skills in ministering to youth — many UU congregations have no youth programs, and many other UU congregations delegate youth ministry to a couple of volunteer (or barely paid) youth advisors with no wide congregational support. Yet it’s a critical time of life.

    Glen @ 4 — Thanks for the moving personal anecdote, and for the wise words on how we can’t expect behavior from our youth that we don’t expect from our adults.

    Wayne Smith @ 5 — Thanks for the correctives on suicide and terminal illness. There are other alternatives, such as adequate pain management, hospice care, etc. I can’t speak highly enough of hospice — they make it possible for people to die comfortably and in dignity.

  7. kim

    As I understand it, teens are also prone to commit suicide because it is “fashionable” in their social group. What a tragedy. What can we do?

  8. crayoneater

    @7 ‘live fast, die pretty’ was so popular among my generation that Hot Topic came out with a line of back-to-school gear with the message silk-screened.

    as an adult it’s easy to see suicide as a very selfish act, and having worked with kids you know how selfish they can be… but the only teens I knew that killed themselves did it because they were Mormon and gay and didn’t know that there was a bigger world outside waiting for them.

    They weren’t depressed, they were hopeless. There are a lot of angles to consider–even requiring independent living classes in high school might help a lot of kids feel more prepared and in-control of their lives rather than dependent on their families.

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