Teen Suicide Is a Complex Issue

by Candi Cushman, Education Analyst

Tragically, there have been several heartbreaking reports of young people taking their own lives in recent months. The national media has rushed to report these cases with dramatic headlines and quick summaries. National gay activists groups have been equally quick to link the recent tragedies to their own goals, through rapidly issued press releases.

The Human Rights Campaign—the nation’s largest homosexual advocacy group—for instance, issued a statement calling on “Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to speak out immediately to push every school in the nation to implement anti-bullying policies inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity,” and calling for use of its own Welcoming Schools curriculum in elementary schools.

But respected researchers and experts on the issue of suicide have long warned that oversimplified, sensationalized and snap-judgment reporting of the issue can actually have a detrimental impact. This was the concern raised by experts at a conference on the issue of suicide at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, who wanted people to understand that “taking one’s life often is the result of multiple issues.”

Likewise, several scientific, medical and research organizations—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Mental Health— have issued recommendations calling for socially responsible reporting about suicide.

Several of these recommendations seem especially relevant during this time:

  • “The cause of an individual suicide is invariably more complicated than a recent painful event such as the break-up of a relationship or the loss of a job. An individual suicide cannot be adequately explained as the understandable response to an individual’s stressful occupation, or an individual’s membership in a group encountering discrimination. Social conditions alone do not explain a suicide. People who appear to become suicidal in response to such events, or in response to a physical illness, generally have significant underlying mental problems, though they may be well-hidden.”
  • “Research shows that, during the period immediately after a death by suicide, grieving family members or friends have difficulty understanding what happened. Responses may be extreme, problems may be minimized, and motives may be complicated.”
  • “Studies of suicide based on in-depth interviews with those close to the victim indicate that, in their first, shocked reaction, friends and family members may find a loved one’s death by suicide inexplicable or they may deny that there were warning signs. Accounts based on these initial reactions are often unreliable.”
  • “Dramatizing the impact of suicide through descriptions and pictures of grieving relatives, teachers or classmates or community expressions of grief may encourage potential victims to see suicide as a way of getting attention or as a form of retaliation against others.”
  • “Using adolescents on TV or in print media to tell the stories of their suicide attempts may be harmful to the adolescents themselves or may encourage other vulnerable young people to seek attention in this way.”

The bottom line is that suicidal behaviors in young people are usually rooted in multiple social, economic, familial, and individual risk factors, with mental health issues playing an important role in the whole mix. To express it another way, suicide is the result of a “perfect storm” of complex, interrelated psychological problems, many of which are not under the victim’s direct conscious control.

Rather than letting the issue be politicized and sensationalized in an irresponsible way, it is important that we recognize the complexity of the issue—and continue to equip families with helpful information on recognizing warning signs.

To that end, below are some Focus on the Family online resources designed to help families recognize trouble signs among teens who may be depressed or having suicidal thoughts.

We also have caring counselors that would be glad to speak with struggling families. Our counseling department can provide you with a referral to a licensed Christian therapist in your community.

You can reach our counseling department Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (Mountain Time) at 1-800-A-FAMILY (1-800-232-6459).


Depression and Suicide: Teens suffering with depression need to be assessed for their risk of suicide. Pay particular attention to these risk factors.

Response to Teen who Has a Friend Struggling with Suicidal Thoughts

Teens in Crisis: Why Parents Matter

Life in Spite of Me