The unseen epidemic: teens struggle in the face of suicide
September 6, 2023
The Bendis family from Beachwood, Ohio, lost 16-year-old Abigail Bendis to suicide in 2017.
Jamie Smith*, a local student and teenager, won her battle against suicidal thoughts.
Two seemingly different stories are more connected than one might think.
Whether or not suicidal thoughts prevail, they leave an indelible mark on the teenager and everyone who has a connection with them.
The rate of suicide in California teens has risen 20% since 2020, according to the California Department of Public Health 2020 Suicide and Self-Harm Data. Also, according to the National Suicide Hotline, suicide is the second leading cause of death in ages 10-24.
A teenager going through suicidal thoughts
Jamie Smith used to consider suicide constantly. Like many other teens, they suffered a lot and had many negative thoughts about themselves.
A couple of years back, they were the worst they had ever been.
“Back when I was in the worst of it, it was all I could think about. To other people, it might have looked like I was being apathetic, but I was dealing with a lot of different emotions, and all I could think was, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’” Smith said.
When a suicidal thought came up in Smith’s mind, they had no way to combat it.
“I didn’t have that many coping strategies, and that’s why it got to the point it did,” Smith said.
Their mental health declined since they had no real way of coping with their dark thoughts.
“I think about why I want to do it, and I end up just wallowing in that pattern. Never doing anything about it until I go to sleep,” Smith said.
In Smith’s experience, no one ever offered support.
“I really wish we were taught more about how to cope instead of just dealing with the effects afterward,” Smith said.
Many resources and information on how to learn coping skills are complex for teenagers like Smith to receive. Treatments like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) are very intensive. According to Dr. Aniya Atasuntseva from Stanford Health, DBT takes six months to a year to complete, making it difficult for some people. However, she highlights that DBT is an excellent method if it is accessible.
In Smith’s experience, the stress and high expectations put on them lead to decreased confidence, and they start to doubt themselves and their abilities.
“I feel like I’m just here, taking up space, and that I’m never going to accomplish anything,” Smith said.
There is also a lot of pressure on some teenagers like Smith to get into a good college, which eventually gets to them, and they start to feel unable and worthless.
“College admissions and the whole prospect of getting into the college that I want or that my parents want, or that I’m expected to do is just such a big ordeal that I can’t really comprehend,” Smith said.
In addition to academic pressure, the COVID-19 pandemic was a significant stressor for teenagers.
According to a Stanford University study, the pandemic’s stress has shown significant changes in the brain age, up to 7 years of rapid aging. Teenage brain growth happens during puberty in the hippocampus and the amygdala, which help regulate emotions. This rapid brain growth from the COVID-19 pandemic is usually only present in teenagers who experience a heap of stress and overwhelming emotions, but it can lead to worsened mental health.
“It was definitely worse over quarantine when I was separated from my friends, and I didn’t have that healthy environment around me. It was tough to get through that, and I should have talked to someone during that time, but I didn’t,” Smith said.
During quarantine, the rate of suicide among teenagers increased. However, for Smith, as the spread and severity of the virus decreased and life started to return to normal, they began to feel better.
“When I got back to my friends and returned to being in a positive environment, it completely flipped around. I felt much better about myself in my life, and I was able to distract myself from those feelings for a little bit,” Smith said.
Smith often felt terrible and guilty for existing because people did so much for them. They believed they were a nuisance and people’s lives would be easier if they didn’t need to give so much.
“A lot of the times, I feel like a burden on my parents because they do so much for me, and I feel like if I just wasn’t here, that would all be solved. It’s the same thing with my friends,” Smith said.
During this time for Smith, trying to deal with their complex emotions brought up dark thoughts. They kept thinking that everything would be better if they weren’t here.
One day, however, Smith overheard a phone conversation their mom had with someone else, saying how much they meant to her.
“She was talking about how nice of a presence I was to have around. She was also having a hard time, and hearing me play the piano or hearing me talk to the cats really helped her,” Smith said.
Hearing this conversation made Smith question their thoughts and outlook on the world.
Family and friends who lost a teenager to suicide
Abigail Bendis’ death affected the family in many ways.
According to Cheryl Bendis, Abigail’s mom, Abigail was friendly and outgoing. She was also intelligent, and she loved school.
Abigail’s death brought up difficult emotions for her family.
At first, it is common for a family to blame themselves and the child.
“Anytime we lose someone, whether it’s because they ended their own life or not, we may be searching for any reasons to find an explanation for why that happened, and that may lead us to have some judgments or question what we could have done differently, or better,” Dr. Atasuntseva said.
In the Bendis family’s experience, their immediate reaction was to question Abigail. They couldn’t find any reason why she would die so suddenly.
“I kept thinking, how could she do this? Why didn’t she talk to us?” Cheryl said.
In reality, according to Dr. Atasuntseva, there is no one real reason for someone to die of suicide, and it never really is one person’s fault.
When dealing with the death of a loved one to suicide, having a support group, whether friends of the loss or even a stranger who had a similar experience with losing someone to suicide, has been shown to help a person heal.
“We keep those connections with other friends of Abigail because it helps us from both sides,” Cheryl said.
Don’t let someone tell you that your feelings aren’t appropriate because what you are feeling is what you are feeling.”
— Cheryl Bendis
Even if a person does not know someone they can talk to or share their feelings with, Dr. Atasuntseva recommends reaching out to a local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI can help people find support groups if they are dealing with a loss and putting the fault on themselves, their child, or their friend who has died.
“It can be really helpful just to be around others and normalize and validate that you’re not alone in feeling that way, and it’s also not your fault,” Dr. Atasuntseva said.
It’s been almost five years since Abigail’s death, and while it has gotten easier for many friends and family of Abigail, there are still days when they struggle with the loss.
In Cheryl’s life, there are happy days and sad days, and there are times when she cries remembering her child.
“Don’t let someone tell you that your feelings aren’t appropriate because what you are feeling is what you are feeling,” Cheryl said.
Many people, especially teens, think that their feelings are invalid and that they are stupid for feeling that way. In reality, it is okay to feel, and Cheryl believes people should share their emotions.
“If you are feeling it, go ahead and feel it and let people know,” Cheryl said.
*This source’s name is changed due to medical/health privacy. For more information on Carlmont Media’s anonymous sourcing, check out Scot Scoop Policies.