James Dungy's Death Underscores Problem of Teenage Suicide

The apparent suicide of James Dungy sheds a reflected light on a growing epidemic in America: teen suicide. Over the last twenty five years, the incidence of teen suicide has tripled. The problem is far more common than most of us realize. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the third leading cause of death in teens among 15-to-24-year-olds. Only car accidents and homicide claim more teenage lives.

None of us have to go too far to find someone affected by this kind of tragedy. Sadly, family members and friends often wonder what they did wrong when a loved one kills himself. Parents should not blame themselves. But we all need to be aware of the warning signs.

Most often, teen suicide is not a matter of choice. It is not about rejecting loved ones. It is not about communicating some romantic notion (think Romeo and Juliet). The profound depression that motivates most teen suicides is a disease. This disease causes a level of pain so profound that it twists one’s ability to assess risk, to make good choices, to maintain a sense of future possibilities. When people act out of this depression, they are not exercising free choice. They are falling victim to a disease. This disease is not about logic or self interest. It is about an immediate desire to be dead.

We all remember what it was like to be a teenager, to be stuck between childhood and adulthood. During his eulogy, Tony Dungy said, "I think he [James] went through a time as a teenager where he wasn’t sure that his parents always had the best advice. He wasn’t sure that we always had his best interests at heart. My daughter, Tiara, said it best the other day: She said, “I just wish he could’ve made it until he was 20. Because, when you’re 17 or 18, sometimes the things that you guys say to us don’t always make sense,” Tiara is 21. She said, “When I got to 20, they started making sense again.” And I just wish he would’ve made it 20.”

Dungy is right. Adolescence can be a time of immense emotional confusion. But teen suicide is not simply about adolescent angst. Rather, the confusion of adolescence may trigger a deeper problem—severe depression. This is more than a bad feeling. Severe depression involves a long-lasting sense of hopelessness that doesn’t let up. Severe depression can affect anyone. For example, the cocky seeming guy on the football team, the quiet, oversensitive seeming kid or the jokester. This disease does not discriminate.

Severe depression dramatically increases the likelihood of a suicide attempt. While roughly one percent of teens attempt suicide, between 15% and 30% of teens with severe depression try to take their lives. In all likelihood, these incidences are dramatically underreported. For every teen who takes his own life, hundreds of others fail in their attempts.

We all need to know the warning signs. Chief among them are dramatic changes in eating and sleeping patterns and social withdrawal. Also, if a teen makes any reference to suicide, it needs to be taken seriously. Even jokes that seem innocuous should not be taken lightly.

Unfortunately, most family members feel uncomfortable talking about death. Parents may wait for a child to come to them. But then it may be too late. If someone you love is exhibiting the warning signs, talk to them. Ask them if they think about suicide. Even if they seem indifferent, this will reassure them that you are aware of their problem and that you care. Agree to give support, but never agree to keep the conversation confidential. You must be a parent, not a best friend. This is what your child needs from you during such difficult circumstances.

You should also seek immediate assistance from a qualified professional. There is also a National Suicide Helpline: 1-800-SUICIDE. All calls are completely confidential. This disease is far more common than most of us realize. It does not matter if you seem to have an ideal family. Severe depression can strike anyone. If you suspect suicidal thoughts, you need to take the risk of getting involved.