Nearly 20 to 30 percent of teens have thought about suicide at some point, and about six in 100,000 kill themselves every year, according to Stanley Kutcher, a professor of psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Canada.
Feelings of hopelessness are often the reason: When people experiencing emotional turmoil don't see an answer, their pain intensifies, says Julie Campbell, a psychologist and executive director of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. "They struggle with issues, and with not having a solution for them—that's a double weight on their shoulders," she says. When the pain becomes unbearable, suicide seems like an attractive option. "They just want to stop the suffering."
It probably doesn't help that pop culture tends to glamorize its depictions of suicide—especially in recent months. Shows like 13 Reasons Why, in which a teenage girl sends recorded narratives to her bullies and takes her life in a graphic scene, do little to promote a sense of healing or even depict an alternative outcome, Kutcher says. "There are no adults portrayed as caring—there's no hope whatsoever." Some mental health professionals worry the show could inspire copycat suicides. (According to one Argentine news outlet, there has already been an eerily reminiscent case in Peru involving a 23-year-old who committed suicide and left tapes behind.)
Stories of hope can serve an important purpose, Campbell says. "When you're experiencing a crisis, you think you'll never get better. If someone shows you a way out, it's helpful—but healing emotionally still takes time and effort." We asked three people to explain how they did it.
Alicia Raimundo, 28
Alicia Raimundo had struggled to fit in all her life. At 23, she was diagnosed with Asperger's, a high-functioning type of autism that can make it difficult to socialize. "I've always been a little bit weird, into video games and superheroes—and I didn't know how to talk to people," she says.
When her classmates began dating, Raimundo suddenly felt even more left out. She grew depressed, lost her motivation to study, and struggled just to get out of bed. Raimundo says she didn't really want to die—she just couldn't see any other options. "I didn't want to live the way I was living anymore," she says.
A few months after a failed suicide attempt left her in the hospital, Raimundo made a new friend at her school. Keerthi, a bubbly 13-year-old Indian girl with a big smile, was quirky and upbeat. Raimundo says, "She helped me accept myself, and I stopped trying to be someone else."
Keerthi also pushed Raimundo to focus on her studies and apply for college, which helped bring about another turning point. Through counseling and some space from the life and the family and friends she grew up with, she says she was finally able to explore her identity. For the first time, Raimundo worked up the nerve to openly discuss her mental health issues with her new peers and dorm mates. Some of her fellow students were "weirded out" by her honesty, but enough of them formed a tight knit support group around her that she felt like she didn't need to hide anything anymore. "I learned that I am incredibly strong and smart, and that I'm allowed to be both ill and amazing," she says.
Today she works at Stella's Place in Toronto, a nonprofit organization that provides free support to teenagers dealing with mental illness. She also talks to students at high schools and universities about her experiences, urging those who are dealing with depression to ask for help.
Josh Copperthwaite, 20
Josh Copperthwaite had been dealing with dark thoughts for years, ever since he began having flashbacks—which started at at age 14—of being sexually abused by his father. In addition to nightmares, he felt drained all the time and suffered panic attacks. He'd also stopped doing his homework. Not wanting anyone to know his secrets, he cut himself off from his friends and family—to whom he felt he was becoming a burden. One chilly fall morning, at age 17, he came close to ending his life. "But a part of me couldn't imagine not being present to see my own life," he says. "My mom and brother needed me. She would have been devastated."
Instead, Cooperthwaite decided to seek the help of a professional. In addition to counseling, his therapist, Dan McGann, introduced Copperthwaite to a running group for teens struggling with depression. As Copperthwaite built up his endurance, his self-esteem improved, too. At the end of his training, he completed his first 5K. Copperthwaite recalls approaching the finish line, his heart pounding, barely able to breathe. He sprinted with everything he had left: "Hearing people cheering me on was amazing," he says. "It gave me back my self-worth."
He needed it. When Copperthwaite's father went on trial eight years after abusing him, Copperthwaite chose to deliver a victim's impact statement. At first he was terrified—paralyzed by the prospect of facing his father (who ended up with probation after a plea bargain). But once he started talking, the words flowed naturally. McGann suggested that Copperthwaite begin telling his story to high school students.
The thought terrified him at first, but eventually the jitters faded—replaced by a rush of euphoria as he realized he was helping troubled students get through hard times. "I tell them there's a light at the end of the tunnel," he says, "even if you can't see that right now."
Emmett Huston, 18
Two years ago, Emmett Huston was in the psych ward of Toronto's North York General Hospital, furious that a friend had called the paramedics after Huston had attempted suicide.
"I feel like shit—it's cruel to keep me alive," Huston, who prefers to be identified with the pronoun "they"—thought. One day after receiving off-unit privileges, they strolled with their mother through the garden outside, sharing a cigarette. "I can't imagine a world without you," their mother said.
Huston realized how devastated the people they loved would be if they died. That didn't fix everything, but it made them feel more cooperative about seeking treatment. Huston had struggled with everything from their divorced parents' dysfunction to their gender identity for years. "I didn't fit in with girls or with guys. I figured I'd be an awkward tomboy girl all my life—I stuck out like a sore thumb in high school," they say.
The fights, the confusion, and the rocky relationships wore them down. By age 14, Huston was on antidepressants. But when that led to uncomfortable side effects, they stopped it. "Then things got really bad." They couldn't sleep, lost their appetite, and cried constantly. They felt misunderstood by everyone, and eventually, gave up hope. That's when they landed in North York General Hospital.
Recovery wasn't simple. But on their 18th birthday, after another hospitalization following a breakup, they decided to push forward. After being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Huston's feelings felt validated. Exercise and controlled breathing techniques, along with just the right combination of medications, were also transformative.
Huston also embraced their non-binary identity and, last year, joined a summer trans youth athletic program. "I felt really good because I had found people who were like me and understood who I was," they say. There are still tough days sometimes when they feel overwhelmed. Regardless, Huston says, "I'm glad I stuck around."
If you are struggling with a mental health issue in USA call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In Canada, visit suicideprevention.ca for more information on how to get help.
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