It’s hard for people to understand why someone would want to take their own life. Can life really be so bad, things so tough, that you just want to give up? Some people say that Australia is the greatest country on earth. A place where you can feel at home no matter where you have come from. A land of abundance and opportunity. Why, then, do we have one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world? What is going wrong? More importantly, what can we do to stop it? Two young men are heading up this fight with a fresh approach that is achieving extraordinary results.
It’s hard for people to understand why someone would want to take their own life. Can life really be so bad, things so tough, that you just want to give up? Unfortunately, for many young Australians today, the answer is yes, although we can’t ask them why they decided to kill themselves because they are dead.
Saying this bluntly does not mean I’m cold hearted, but rather that I’m comfortable talking about suicide. One of the biggest challenges with suicide is that it’s such a taboo subject in our society. People usually consider it too difficult to broach or are fearful they may actually encourage someone to commit suicide by talking about it. Yet this lack of understanding contributes further to the problem.
Dale Beaumont and I are co-founders of the youth development program, Empower U. We have also written the self-development book, ‘The World at Your Feet’, and are directors of Tomorrow’s Youth, an organisation aimed at filling in the gaps in teenagers’ education.
The inspiration for this much-needed initiative developed a few years ago after Dale and I had life-changing experiences that made us sit up and get serious about life. Dale had lost his brother in tragic circumstances and I was robbed at gunpoint. Our experiences drew us closer together and made us think about our lives and our future. We came to the realisation that we needed to develop additional life skills if we wanted to achieve the goals we had set for our future.
We also reasoned that if we weren’t equipped with these skills, then presumably many other teenagers weren’t either. This led to the development of Empower U, a course specifically for young people aged 13 to 21 to help them develop communication skills and positive self-esteem, and to help them make the most of what they have within. This course has already touched the lives of thousands of young people in Australia and overseas. Our weekend program has been acclaimed as one of the best of its kind in the world today.
Some of the areas covered over the weekend are goal setting, communication, leadership, teamwork, career success, money management, creative thinking and much more. We didn’t want a program that focused on negative issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse. We believe that if you empower people with tools and strategies to improve their confidence and self-esteem, then they will have the emotional intelligence to avoid negative outlets and addictions.
Each year, over 400 Australians aged 15 to 24 kill themselves, making suicide the second highest cause of death in this age group after road accidents. I believe that suicide is often a cry for help. So many teenagers have underlying issues involving grief and pain, brought about by a host of factors such as being bullied at school and feeling isolated, or having lost someone close to them. Because we are never taught how to manage our emotions, we cope in varying ways as best we can. This is where the symptoms of suicidal behaviour begin. For people with poor coping skills, their troubles can escalate into something much more serious.
We believe another major challenge is the fact that our society is advancing at such a technological rate that teenagers are losing a lot of the communication skills necessary to be able to talk to people about their problems. With the advent of email, the internet and mobile phones, more and more teenagers are not using natural, face-to-face communication and are losing touch with the pulse of society.
Parents are responsible for providing their children with a stable home environment, both physical and emotional, and play a key role in the development of their child’s mental state. They must listen to teenagers and be supportive, encouraging appropriate expression of emotion. As my friend Dale points out, this is a challenge that parents need to manage. “If parents don’t take responsibility for this and fail to keep a healthy, natural relationship with their child, then the chances of them falling through the cracks is increased.”
Our seminars have stopped hundreds of teenagers from doing the unthinkable. By allowing teenagers to face their fears and let go of past negative experiences, they can start afresh with a clean slate. This is like lifting a huge weight from their shoulders. I feel the main reason we have had these wonderful results with teenagers is due to the environment we create. We encourage openness and honesty, with the reassurance that we are not there to judge. Negative thoughts slowly convert to positive ones. If you can create the right environment, you can achieve anything you want.
Depression is caused by biochemical imbalances in the brain. These changes affect the normal function of specialised centres in the brain that influence a person’s mood, behaviour and perceptions of the outside world. Mood changes are common among teenagers, but a sustained low or sad mood and changes in sleep and appetite patterns can indicate an underlying problem such as depression. The risk of suicide is much higher among youths with depression.
Drug and alcohol abuse is often implicated in teen suicides. It is commonly used as a way out, an escape from a teenager’s painful reality. Substance abuse can lead to a total dependency, both physically and mentally. Drugs and alcohol can cause a teenager to lose their ability to properly judge situations and increase the incidence of risk taking. If a depressed teenager uses drugs and/or alcohol, it creates a dangerous combination that can trigger suicide.
From the age of three, up to 23% of girls and 10% of boys suffer sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is one of the hidden factors that can cause severe problems during the teenage years. These include dealing with, and understanding, issues related to sexuality and relationships. Many teenagers experience a significant amount of distress or anxiety when dealing with their sexuality. Homophobia is also still a big problem in today’s society and can have a huge impact on teenagers who are trying to come to terms with their sexual preference.
Troubled Family Background
During the teenage years, family support is particularly important in natural development. During the 1960s, most families included two parents. Today, a large percentage of families involve a single parent, or one natural parent and a step-parent, which can create developmental problems for children. If family life is in disarray, or violent or abusive, a teenage person can react by becoming depressed or angry, which can have devastating consequences. At the other end of the scale, parents who are overbearing or over-protective can have a similar effect on a teenager.
Peer Pressure and Bullying
Peer pressure and bullying is also still a big issue. When a teenager is subjected to some form of bullying, whether physical or verbal, it leaves them feeling isolated and alone. The biggest thing a teenager needs is certainty - to have a place in society and a sense of being part of a group. If this is lost, then they can feel there is no purpose for them, which can lead to thoughts of suicide.
Myths and Facts
Myth: Suicide occurs without warning. Fact: Most suicide victims give warnings of their intentions.
Myth: People who talk about suicide are just looking for attention. Fact: Talking about suicide is a warning sign. Don’t ignore it.
Myth: If you promise to keep a friend’s suicidal plan a secret, you have to keep it. Fact: Suicidal plans should never be kept a secret. You must tell a parent or someone you trust.
If you recognise the following warning signs, you must notify someone. In most cases, help is just a phone call away.
A challenge with this fast-paced world of ours is that it just keeps getting faster! More work, more stress, busier lifestyles, less down-time. This trend is not all doom and gloom, but it does highlight some very important points.
Teenagers need to develop emotional intelligence, or the ability to understand and control their emotions. Humans are driven by emotions, how things make us feel. However, we are rarely taught how to control or express our emotions.
Research shows that, by the age of 7, over 90% of ‘who we are’ has already been determined. In other words, our beliefs - about ourselves and the world around us - are shaped by the events that happen in our first seven years of life. Our beliefs are formed through ‘references’, things that happen in our life that support a belief to be true.
In the case of suicide, if we can identify the negative beliefs that cause us to contemplate suicide, we can break down those beliefs by creating new references. To help explain this, I like to use the metaphor of a table. The table top is supported by legs, in the same way as a belief is supported by references. By identifying the references that support a particular belief, we can look at ways to break down the reference and create new ones.
Take someone who has a belief that they are not a confident public speaker. They were not born with this belief; they created it through certain events in their life. Perhaps they spoke out of turn in kindergarten and the teacher disciplined them in front of the whole class. Thus one reference was created. But for a table to stand, it needs more than one leg. So when similar events occur, we begin to create more references, ultimately leading to the support of a strong belief.
To create a new belief that the person is a confident public speaker, we need to create some new references. For example, they could present a short talk in front of family or friends and receive a standing ovation. The greater the reference, the better the chance of destroying the old negative belief and creating a new empowering belief.