Sunday Reflections: When You’re a Teen and a Friend Threatens Suicide
Trigger Warning: Suicide, Suicidal Ideation
We spent all of 2016 talking about teens and mental health and it occurs to me, we never talked about what happens when you are a teenager and your friend threatens to commit suicide. This point became painfully clear to me this past Friday night when this very event happened to The Teen.
At about 3 a.m. I received a text from The Teen – I’m in another state at the moment – where she said, “Mommy, I need you. I don’t know what to do.” A friend of her was texting her that they were going to commit suicide because the world would be better off without them. I jumped up immediately and called my daughter because I understood that this was an emergency, for both her and her friend. So I called and my daughter could barely talk through the crying. She really didn’t know much about this person except for their name and phone number, they just met this year at school and they are friends in the way that many teens are in 2017. They hang out at school and text, but they don’t they’ve never been to each other’s homes and they don’t really know much about each other.
So, not knowing how to get a hold of the parents, I did the only thing I could think to do and I called the local police and reported that a teenager was considering suicide and asked them to make sure this person was okay. This bit was tricky because we couldn’t answer any of their questions. A name and number is all we could provide.
I will be honest and tell you that I was motivated not only for concern for this teen and his well being, but for my own. I knew and understood that if we did nothing and it turned out that this teen did end up harmed in some way, my daughter would never be okay. I have mentioned here before that almost two years ago my high school best friend died by suicide and it will never not haunt me. Unlike my daughter I had no idea, but I still wrestle with guilt and wondering what signs I missed. I want more than anything to spare her this burden. So I did the only thing I could think to do.
My daughter has grown up in a home where we talk about mental health issues and she knows that they are real and serious, but not shameful. I myself struggle with depression and anxiety issues. I myself have had some periods of suicidal ideation. She is aware of all of this. So when this friend reached out to her, she understood what was happening, she just didn’t know what to do. And to be honest, I didn’t either. When I am in my darkest places, I tend to shut down and turn inward. But I recognized that this teen was issuing a cry for help, we just didn’t know how, exactly, to help them. And I reminded her again and again that she, a mere teenager herself, was not equipped to help him.
Afterwards, we talked a lot about what it means to be a friend to someone struggling with a mental health issues. We talked about responsibility and saving, and how in the end, we are not and can not be responsible for another person’s mental health and happiness. It’s a harsh truth that I have come to understand for myself, I and I alone am responsible for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t cherish the support of others (because I genuinely do) and that we shouldn’t give it to others when we can (because we can and should), but at the end of the day no one else can save or heal me. I needed her to understand that although she can and should be a good friend to this person, that if something ever does happen to them it is not her fault.
So here’s the take away of what I told her and think we should tell all teens regarding a friend who expresses suicidal ideation. Please keep in mind, I am not a legal or medical professional and this is what I did and some research (links at the bottoms) indicate that I did a pretty decent job of handling the situation.
1. Tell an adult immediately. Even if you promised not to tell, tell someone.
2. Always, if it is an emergency, call 911 immediately. If you have reason to suspect someone has just done something that is life threatening, call 911.
3. The adult should contact the parent of the individual if they know how. Otherwise, they should contact the police in the area where the teen expressing suicidal ideation resides. Let them know that you have a child who has been in contact with someone who has expressed that they may commit suicide and ask that they do a safety check.
4. Have as much information as you know ready about the individual when you contact the police. Name, number, address, parents, etc.
5. Afterwards, remind the teen that telling an adult was the right thing to do. Help them understand that telling an adult was the right thing even if it has negative consequences (for example, their friend may get in trouble with their parents). It is possible that this person will be upset and angry, it may even end the friendship. Do not feel guilty. You are doing what you can to help someone who has just expressed that their life is in jeopardy, that is never wrong.
6. Let your teen know that if the friendship does continue moving forward, it’s okay to set boundaries for yourself. For example, while being an engaged and supportive friend is encouraged, they are not allowed to put you in this position again or use guilt against you. Being in a friendship with a person who struggles with depression and anxiety is hard, and I can look at a lot of my past relationships and see ways in which I have harmed my past friends – it’s part of the illness that can take a while to figure out and learn to better navigate – but the person on the other side of the friendship 100% gets to have their own personal boundaries to maintain their own emotional health and well being. Always, always talk with teens about healthy relationships and personal boundaries.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network