It’s been said that working with young people in a clinical setting is both the most rewarding and the most difficult job one can perform. Adolescence can be a very tumultuous developmental period; it is marked by the gain and loss of relationships, and the continued path towards identity consolidation. In my work with adolescent populations, I have heard some of the most uplifting stories possible, and I have also listened to stories filled with what many would consider to be unimaginable pain, the types of stories that keep you awake at night.
With young individuals in particular, internalized pain can be a very salient risk factor for suicidal ideation and gesture. Among young individuals ages 15-24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. While the experience of socioeconomic distress (which affects young Latinos at the highest rates) or lack of a solid support system are both correlated with overall stress and depression – and hence, suicidal ideation – one of the many myths surrounding suicide is that only individuals who experience such distress are suicidal. To the contrary, it is a silent epidemic with, quite often, the most subtle of symptoms.
These symptoms, however, are often dismissed by those who believe that people should just “toughen up” in the face of adversity. Many individuals who are harboring suicidal thoughts have learned to remain silent because they have such people in their lives; people who minimize their experience of internalized pain. I cannot stress this enough: if you believe that someone you care for is in a difficult place in their life, it is absolutely fine to ask them — straight up — if they have been experiencing thoughts of harming themselves in some manner. This may turn out to be the most important question you ever ask them.
Additionally, it is important to encourage the person experiencing suicidal ideation to seek out professional assistance. Those who unfortunately choose to take their own lives do so not out of selfishness or the need for attention, but because they feel as if no one can ever understand or help them alleviate their internalized distress. Therapeutic treatment goes a long way in reversing this epidemic, but therapeutic treatment is unfortunately something that many Latinos are very ambivalent towards. However, it is important that the individual be surrounded with some type of support system that will help them navigate the pain and validate the feeling of distress, in order to seek a path towards healing.
It is important to note that this article should not be interpreted as clinical advice or used as a diagnostic tool. If you are experiencing or feel that someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, I strongly encourage you to seek out immediate support. Twenty-four hour support is available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. You should also seek out a licensed or qualified psychologist/therapist. There is hope, and you are not alone.