Lisa Zoll is an instructor in the School of Social Work at Temple’s Harrisburg campus. Her teaching interests include Loss & Grief, Assessment and Diagnosis of Mental Health Disorders, Social Justice, and Human Behavior in the Social Environment. Paige Gentry (MEd, Counseling Psychology, 2017) also contributed to this article.
This post is part of a series on our faculty's research in adolescent suicide. Read Assistant Professor Carolina Hausmann-Stabile's post.
Among 15- to 24-year-olds, suicide is the third leading cause of death. Adolescence is a time of stress, worry, and transitions, producing numerous pressures to fit in socially, to perform academically, and to act responsibly. Suicide among teens often happens after a stressful life event or during major life changes, such as problems at school, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the death of a loved one, a divorce, a move, or a major family conflict. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, being a victim of bullying has a “clear relationship” with committing or thinking about suicide. Bullying can take on the form of insults, rumors, physical harm, or cyberbullying.
Grief, therefore, is an equally common experience for teenagers. A universal experience, grief is a natural response that includes an emotional reaction to the loss of a bond or attachment that was formed with another individual. The grief reaction may include distinct responses to the loss, including unrelenting yearning for the person who is gone and an inability to get past that point, anger, bitterness, shock, disbelief, isolation from others, hallucinations of the deceased, and distinct behavioral changes. These reactions become more complicated when the death is a result of suicide.
Many suicide survivors feel that they could have caused or prevented the death. This can lead many survivors to experience heightened feelings of rejection or abandonment as well as shame, guilt, and anger due to the nature of the death. The experience can be particularly difficult during adolescence, when a great deal of other changes are occurring. During adolescence, grief has the potential to accelerate or inhibit development. Young people can often feel overwhelmed and confused by the intensity and range of feelings they are experiencing.
Further, there is a stigma around death by suicide, and this can make is it shameful and very difficult for survivors to talk to others about their loss and, particularly, the circumstances of the death. This, in turn, can interfere with the healing process. The type of grief that suicide survivors experience has been described as a disenfranchised grief (along with perinatal death/miscarriages/abortions, loss of an ex-spouse, loss of a pet). In the case of suicide, there is a belief that the survivor has no perceived “right” to mourn since the death is viewed as intentional.
Teens experience grief differently than adults do – even their parents, or their younger brothers or sisters. Teens can be significantly affected by the suicide of a friend, a classmate, or a sibling. These are their peers, and their death drives home the reality that anyone can die, even young people, thus leaving them feeling vulnerable and threatened by thoughts of their own mortality. The tragedy of a young person dying because of overwhelming hopelessness or frustration is devastating to family, friends, and community. Parents, siblings, classmates, coaches, and neighbors might be left wondering if they could have done something to prevent that young person from turning to suicide.
The most important protective factor for suicide survivors is a strong support system that may include significant others, family, and friends. Suicide survivors have found support groups to be beneficial to their healing process. These groups help survivors validate their loss, realize that they are not alone in their feelings, and lessen the stigma of their grief.
Learn more about the School of Social Work and the Master of Social Work program at Temple-Harrisburg.
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