The Dangerous Myth of Teen Suicide – Doing It For Attention

In 15-24 year olds, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death. In 5-14 year old children, it is the sixth. These alarming statistics show that youth and teen suicide is a serious problem with our younger population. Unfortunately, many of these suicides could have been avoided if friends and family recognized the warning signs and ignored the dangerous myth that these suicidal threats were “for attention.”

If an adult man was depressed and verbalized to others that he desired to end his life, in most cases that threat would be taken seriously by those around him. Other adults would immediately recognize that his thoughts and words were out of character. The danger with teens who threaten suicide, however, is that their threats are often dismissed as being dramatic, attention-seeking or overly emotional because they are frequently in a moody or irritable state. Teens become emotionally distraught very easily in their everyday lives. Like “the boy who cried wolf,” it can be difficult to distinguish when a child is being sincere.

Err on the side of caution

The number one rule of thumb should always be to err on the side of caution. Never make the dangerous assumption that a child is only “doing it for attention.” A common mistake that adults make, when dismissing a child’s suicidal thoughts, is that they look for reasons to justify why a child is so upset. A recent break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend is an excellent example of an excuse that is used to rationalize away these extreme emotions. However, if a child has already been emotionally distressed over other life challenges such as parents divorcing, worries about the future, problems with peers in school or failing grades, the breakup of an important relationship can be the final emotional trigger that leads a teen to feel suicide is the only way to end the pain.

Another common mistake that occurs is when adults fail to see that what they are labeling a cause of depression is actually a symptom of depression. In a recent true story, a 17 year old teenager began engaging in risky behaviors. He was drinking, doing drugs, his grades were failing and he broke up with his girlfriend of 14 months for no apparent reason. Feeling lonely and regretting his mistake of ending this important relationship, he wanted his ex back, but she declined and had moved on. He began threatening suicide to his ex-girlfriend, continually messaging her that his life was hopeless. Initially, she told no one about his suicidal thoughts simply because he asked her not to. Eventually, she told his mother and her own parents, but they did nothing and stated directly he was “doing it for her attention.” Fortunately, the young girl didn’t give up and finally found an adult who would listen. It took two direct suicidal threats and two calls to 911 for the young man to finally be taken seriously. He is in inpatient treatment and is getting the help he needs.  That is the kind of help that private drug rehab in Indiana and in other parts of the United States can bring.

In the above example, adults believed the teen’s regret over breaking up was why he was messaging her “dramatic” suicidal thoughts. However, his breaking up with her out of the blue was actually a symptom of his severe depression, including the other signs such as drug use and falling grades. Many adults and even counselors lack the whole picture of what a teen is feeling inside. Looking for an easier explanation to minimize the seriousness of the suicidal threat puts many depressed teens in harm’s way. In this story, the depression was actually due to severe emotional abuse in his household. He turned to drugs to dull the pain, and pushed away his girlfriend. Outsiders only saw a young man who was distraught over a relationship and drew dangerous, inaccurate conclusions from there.

Adults and teenagers both need to understand that youth who threaten to take their own lives actually do commit suicide. No one who commits suicide truly wants to die, they merely feel hopeless that their internal pain will never stop. Exclaiming to others that they want to die can often be a first step in preparing for the tragic end result of carrying out on those threats. In no instance should anyone dismiss threats, feeling they have an explanation for why a teen is feeling so upset. Every 100 minutes one 15-24 year old will take his or her own life. Many of these young adults will commit suicide because no one took their cries for help seriously, dismissing them as merely “doing it for attention.”

About the Author
Grace Pamer is a mom of 3, avid writer and widely known as the love letters lady. She runs a popular section called love letters for him on her Romantic Frugal Mom blog, a guide which helps couples to compose love letters for their nearest and dearest.

Image via Creative Commons

2 thoughts on “The Dangerous Myth of Teen Suicide – Doing It For Attention

  1. Dear Grace,
    I found your paper very enlightening, I still hear people talk of teens ‘just trying to get attention’, which I believe is for good reasons. As you clarify if this occurs err on the side of caution.
    I am very interested in research of the younger group who take their own lives through suicide (under 10) and wondered if you could direct me to that research?
    kind regards

  2. I found your paper very helpful. I’m a teenagers who used to be suicidal and everyone including my pastor said, “You just want some attention. There’s better ways and things to get attention.” and it used to make me so mad when they would say that because i didn’t want attention. I guess i did want to be heard though. and I felt like i was screaming and nobody could hear me. I mean I know my family loves me and all but not even they could understand. I truly feel like you have an understanding of it! Thabk you for writing this.

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