An uncomfortable topic: Depression and Suicide

I have been asked to help my synagogue with a program that educates teenagers about depression and suicide.  I met with the Religious School Director, a professional from Jewish Social Services of Northern Virginia and another volunteer mental health worker  to learn about the program.  The curriculum has been written by an outside agency; our task is to be trained and discuss how we want to present it to the teenagers that attend our religious school. The structure is such that we will meet one evening during religious school for 90 minutes with the teenagers (9th-12th grades) and their parents.  Two of us will meet with the parents and two with the teens.

I found the curriculum to be interesting, thought provoking and important. I noted that during our training discussion, there was concern as to whether some of the material was too harsh, or would the parents be taken aback.   The other mental health provider and I were adamant that these serious and scary subjects need to be addressed, there was to be no beating around the bush.  It made sense that those more involved with the politics of both the synagogue and the community would be sensitive to the tone of the the program, a.k.a. complaining calls and emails about such touchy subject material.

We have to be candid with these kids.  We want it to be safe for them to talk about times that they feel sad, anxious, depressed or  even suicidal.  There is a lot of pressure for teens to be  happy and perky. I have many clients tell me that they “fake” it around their friends and at school because they don’t want people to know that they are really sad and struggling inside. I hope we can create a space where the teens can not only  gather some information, but also realize that they are not alone with these “taboo” feelings.  I hope that they will be able to reach out to either their peers or the adults and share what may be on their hearts.

 The curriculum includes  handouts, written material and a DVD.  The DVD  has three vignettes of teens acting: a girl that has broken up with her boyfriend who is feeling hopeless, a boy stressed about grades and college and feels life isn’t worth living and a boy that is being bullied in school. Interspersed with the somewhat “cheesy” dramatizations are real life people sharing their stories which are powerful and emotional (compensating for, in my opinion,  the “cheese” factor of the dramatizations).  One boy talks about jumping out of a window and both his physical and emotional recovery.  A girl talks about her struggle with her parents divorce,  drug addiction and a suicide attempt and how she has pulled her life together and now feels very hopeful.  The story that was most difficult to watch was that of a girl’s family and friends following her death from suicide.  The friends talked repeatedly about missing the warning signs, ignoring her cries for help and not doing enough to help her.

The program has a strong focus on what to do if a friend shares that s/he is feeling hopeless or suicidal and requests that you not tell anyone.  I have had many of my teenage clients share this exact predicament with me in their therapy sessions.  Their initial concern is that they want to be a loyal friend. I emphasize the importance of safety with these teenage clients. I inform them that being a loyal friend is telling a trusted adult like their parent, teacher or guidance counselor to keep their friend safe.  I tell my clients that it is better to have their friend mad at them and alive than have their friend die.

The parent group will be separate from their sons and daughters.  The teens are more apt to open up if they are not with their parents.  The parents will also view the DVD and be instructed on warning signs of teen depression and suicide.  I hope to create a dialogue with the parents around issues such as supporting their teens, when it is necessary to get professional help and also helping them tap into their own feelings of depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns.

This is a troubling and scary issue, one that we don’t  want to have to think about, and yet we must.  I am including some links if you want to read more about this issue, and as always, I am here to help.


Teen Depression

Warning Signs of Suicide

American Association of Suicidology


3 Comments on “An uncomfortable topic: Depression and Suicide”

  1. Adam Cohn says:

    I think that you are right on target here. I agree that you have to really deal with the issues. Our kids are so worldly and cynical that they immediately know if you are sugar coating a subject. You can’t back down from the tough questions or they will tune out quickly.

    If parents complain (which I don’t think that they will) they should be reminded that with youtube + smartphones + public school = their kids have seen a lot of things they would have preferred that they did not see. You can’t control that, so you might as well give them the straight story about life in a way that will help them cope.

    Sounds like a great program, thanks for sharing this.

  2. […] many of you loyal readers remember this post about a presentation that I was being trained to give about teen suicide and depression? The […]

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