Protective factors against suicide for children and teens
I was a very unhappy 12-year-old. Being too tall, too feminine and mature for my age, meant I felt out of sorts in my body. Looking as developed as I did came with sexually loaded attention of men that made me feel highly uncomfortable. The way my peers were overly interested in boys or girls felt very alien to me.
On top of that, the transition from primary to secondary school was tough. I was not used to talking and having difficulty pronouncing and finding my words and the severe stutter didn’t help either.
I had been bullied in primary school and of course, it happened again. The boys sitting behind me in the class would pull my bra strap. When this happened in the playground, I felt so overwhelmed by anger and shame that I lashed out and hit both of them hard. Being at least a head taller I scared them to the point they stopped bullying me. However that resulted in different difficulties at school, I felt increasingly lonely and scared, depressed and hopeless. I felt imprisoned and I wanted to break free.
I believed that the best option to break free from this life was suicide, seriously considering it for the best part of that year. I could not imagine being able to get in charge of my life and make it better. So suicide it was. After a first unsuccessful clumsy attempt, I used my mum’s library card to get access to the grown-up books I needed for my research. I had to consider my family members, no mess and secure -no coming back from it- I had elaborate fantasies about how to do it.
To me, this option meant it would all be over within one go and I would never have to feel like this anymore. This was one of the most bleak periods in my life.
The odds were stacked against me
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds globally. In Europe, where youth suicide rates are tending to decrease, suicide is ranked as the second most frequent cause of death in the 10–19 year age group. It is even the most frequent cause of death among females aged 15–19 years (6.15 per 100,000). (Source: Suicide and Youth: Risk Factors by Johan Bilsen in Frontiers in Psychiatry 2018)
The Risk Factors for Suicide are:
Having tried before
The scar of my first and only very clumsy suicide attempt has now mostly faded. In despair, I impulsively tried and didn’t succeed, because I didn’t know how to cut my wrist effectively. I’m very grateful for that. I also wonder how much of it was luck, as information was not a fingertip away as it is nowadays.
Family with mental health issues
There was a family history of child maltreatment and abuse, alcohol and substance abuse, mental health issues, illness and hospitalisation.
Lack of support System
I felt utterly isolated, hopeless and helpless. I experienced insecurity, stress and a lack of control without a supportive environment and was not (yet) able to develop intimate friendships. I ran away from home regularly to unsafe environments.
Lack of Emotion Regulation Skills
In a challenging situation, I felt completely overwhelmed and was either totally compliant or impulsive and (even physically) aggressive in my problem-solving solutions, after my primary years of accepting everything.
Lack of access to mental health support
I was not aware that there was help available out there for children or teens. When I was in my twenties and told my mum I had started therapy and we talked about my childhood, she shared that she had been really worried about me during my childhood and felt quite guilty for not reaching out for professional help. She explained she thought it would reflect on her badly and would influence her professional reputation, making it harder for her as a single mum of three young children to earn a living. She had felt stuck between two brick walls.
Experiencing Health Issues
When twelve I had neglected appendicitis that turned into a serious peritoneal infection which landed me in hospital for a month. This was the start of health issues that lasted for years. This was also my turning point.
How did I manage against the odds?
Reading the risk factors for suicide I realised the odds had been stacked against me as a twelve-year-old. I felt the odd one out, I didn’t have any connections in which I felt safe to share and no access to support, I was ticking all the boxes, so how did I manage?
The love of One (in my case my lovely Gran)
Above all being loved and appreciated by my grandmother was very important to me and helped me a lot, as you can read in my blog: My Secret Powers – Tribute to my ‘Oma’ (=Gran in Dutch)-. Having had my gran in my life during those challenging years has made a huge difference.
I only needed this one person that loved and accepted me just the way I was, even if it was at a distance. It made me realise that it is not written in stone how to relate to people.
That we have a choice and that we can define how we want to go about it.
To feel accepted and appreciated just the way we are
Being in the hospital for more than a month was a blessing in disguise. I was in the pediatric ward and although I was seriously ill, I felt I had entered heaven. The nurses were so kind to me, gave me encouraging words when I couldn’t sleep, were compassionate to me about my pain and fears, held my hand and stroke my forehead (even in the middle of the night) and when I was recovering they engaged me in all kinds of activities that were going on, giving me a role for which I was appreciated. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay with them and all the other children in this welcoming, warm, filled with laughter environment.
I felt I could just be who I was and that was good enough.
Opening up about my troubles
I practised developing meaningful friendships by opening up to penpals in our letters. My penpal in Rotterdam offered me to come to stay with her when I shared some of my troubles. This was the first time I ran away from home. I stayed with her a couple of days, learning that family bonds could be open, direct and supportive. Her family was completely different from the one I was used to and I experienced how lovely it was to be approached without the stigmas that were surrounding me ‘as the over-reactive difficult child’, the black sheep in my own family. I went there to experience a completely different family dynamic, it might have been as dysfunctional as mine, however it was an eye-opener that it could be so different.
I saw I can choose how to relate to others.
Getting help at School
I also shared some of my issues around being bullied and feeling ashamed about being tempted to hurt them back with a school teaching assistant. The second time I ran away from home, I went to her. She made sure I rang my mum directly after arrival and arranged it so I could stay for a few days. I stayed in her student’s house in the city for some nights.
She was kind, thoughtful and helpful – both practically and emotionally supportive. The experience of being deeply cared for felt empowering. This also gave me someone to go to in school when I was struggling.
I had someone to turn to in school
Enjoying others and sharing whatever happened in my life with trusted non-judgemental people that cared for me, strengthened my Baseline and helped me to stay with the uncomfortable feelings when I felt overwhelmed and avoid socially unacceptable reactions. I learnt I could share both my successes and failures in being in charge of my emotional reactions.
I was cheered on from the sidelines and that helped me stay on my own track.
Someone standing up for me
A couple with young children moved into our street, they were caring, light and full of fun. The mum listened to me and didn’t correct me or became impatient with my speech issues. They invited me into their little world. She also offered to talk with my mum after the first time I ran away to see if she could get my mum to talk with a therapist and me together. Although it didn’t change anything, it did give me a warm and cared for feeling. As a young family, they modelled to me another way of communicating, parenting and caring for each other.
I was worth all that effort in my young neighbours’ eyes.
My Imaginational and Emotional OE
My imaginational OE also showed me that there could be a different life than the one I was living. My imagination helped me carve a way forward, making it easier to walk the new route by engraving this path through visualising and feeling in my mind.
I felt I had options, I didn’t have to repeat my mums way of connecting. I didn’t need to be the person I was in her eyes. I saw a path to a more happy life. I was not stuck and I felt it might be possible to get in charge of my own life.
I felt I had options to choose from that empowered me.
Following my Dream and finding purpose
I would lose myself a lot in what we call it in Dutch ‘Navelstaren’ (=navel gazing), which would primarily lead me on the route to self-pity and despair and allow my little girl in the primal part of my brain to take over. I would be stuck in the Cycle of Emotional and Sensory Overload, making it impossible for me to access my abilities to improve my situation or at least make the best of it.
In my future, I wanted to be able to help other children like myself and focussing on this dream really helped me forwards. The purposes I considered were starting a foster family with 12 children, a run-a-way home for teens, or become a psychologist. Those dreams gave me purpose, what did I need to do now to be able to do this later?
In my mind’s eye, I saw where I was heading.
Acceptance, Awareness and Community
Growing increasingly aware and accepting of my feelings, gave me space to come up with a plan. I gave myself a year to see if I could get in charge of my own life. That gave me time to develop a plan that empowered me enough to start setting my own course, giving me the strength to let go of my escape fantasies and focus on myself and my own dreams.
I started hanging around a new Dutch project called Kinderdorp Bennekom (that is still going strong) where volunteers were organising fun stuff for children, letting them build houses from scrap on a field for a week-long, the plan was to organise it once a year. Although I was too young to volunteer, I gave a helping hand and learned along the way. When I was old enough I volunteered with lots of pleasure. In that year I experienced significant enough change for life to feel worth living.
Giving within a supportive community made it worthwhile living.
Of course it took me many more years than just one (how youthfully optimistic) to get in charge of my own life, and of course, I sometimes have unhelpful thoughts, feelings or actions. And that is to be expected when we feel tired, worried or stressed, or don’t manage to nourish our Baseline.
Our journey is not about being perfect, it is about embracing mistakes, not losing unnecessary energy over things, catching unhelpful thoughts before they drain us further (with the help of the Awareness Mantra) and getting back into the directors chair of our lives where we can focus on repairing connectedness with ourselves, by being kind to ourselves which allows us to be kind to others.
We cannot be more compassionate to others than we are to ourselves.
- Gap Energy
- Crushing Feelings led to very rewarding Eternal Quest of Self-Discovery
- Overwhelmed by guilt and shame while parenting? Congrats! (including the Awareness Mantra)
- How to stop hurting when our Child is in Pain
- Am I a Rubbish Mum? – The Unexpected Value of Self-Criticism
- Top 3 Tips to Up your Baseline (Energy and Resilience Level)