April 23, 2013

Hopeless Teen Males – Desperate Actions

For me, time spent with teen boys is often challenging, sometimes frustrating, but mostly fun. I love the young guy humor, creativity, competitiveness, their personal durability, bravado, and even all the Facebooking and text messaging. I love witnessing their fledgling attempts at manhood as they struggle with self-esteem, relationships, and trying to move into a world full of responsibilities. It’s all very good for me.

Also good for me, but the most difficult part of the work, is staying present with so many of these young guys as they tell stories of deep loss, wounding, and betrayal. Over the years, I’ve heard terribly sad and occasionally horrific stories from young guys: tragic tales of fighting with mom’s drunken boyfriend . . . without mom’s support; never knowing who your dad is/was, or witnessing your dad kill himself with a shot to the head; living with grandma cuz both mom and dad are in jail; not having enough food for the family or staying out of the house as much as possible because mom just rages at me; heart-crushing breakups with girlfriends or having to protect younger siblings from the alcoholic dad; having your best friend killed in a gang encounter; not being able to focus enough to do homework and becoming a Super Senior because you failed your senior year and have to do it again. When they are filled with hopelessness and pushed to the edge, angry young males can do desperate things.
Hopeless and angry young males
can do desperate things.
It’s difficult but important to be a man sitting with these young guys, listening to their stories, and making a place for their tears and expressions of anger. It’s important for them to be heard and to have a man honor their courage, their stamina, and the strength they show by not giving up on themselves. It’s important to be a true ally for a kid, letting him know that you, and the men with you, care about him and are committed to standing by his side as he finds his way through the insanity and hurt. Sometimes, just not being alone with it all, makes a huge difference. Did you have men stand by your side in these ways in the hard times?

I find it disturbing to know the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claim suicide is the third leading cause of death, behind accidents and homicide, for people aged 15 to 24. Even more troubling is the fact that suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for children between the ages of 10 and 14. The website teensuicidestatistics.com says, According to the American Academy of Pediatrics . . . 60 percent of high school students say that they have thought about suicide for themselves.

When hopelessness turns to talk about suicide, we are required by law to report it to parents and the authorities. But until those wheels start turning, knowing how to support a young person can make the critical, life-saving difference. It hasn't happened yet, but one day, I know a young man who is harboring more pain and emotional confusion than a young guy should, and more fear and sadness than even he can tolerate, will say he just wants to die. Pete Young, a brother in mission from the Boys to Men of Southern Oregon, had the same feeling. He told me this story of a boy, on a Rite of Passage Weekend, who was close to the edge:

There was one occasion where it was obvious a young man was on the edge. I was leading a weekend when a young man came up to me and said he wanted to leave. I asked him what was going on, and he said he couldn't do the deep process work because he said, "I haven't been happy in years and don't think this weekend is for me. I need to leave." I could tell by his body language, words, and general demeanor, he had given up on himself. His energy was flat, like a black hole. When he shared his hopelessness, it made my hair stand up and I literally felt chills.

I asked a co-leader to take over the weekend, found a second adult, and we went off to a room with this young guy. We talked, hung out, laughed and cried for hours. As we talked, it became clear that his life story was horrible, and he was reluctant to hope for anything. From that moment forward, we basically created a separate weekend for him. I told him that he was the most important thing I had going, even though I was supposed to be running the weekend. We took the time needed with him for speaking frankly, crying, and being pissed off, together.

Because of that experience, Pete went on to take the ASIST suicide intervention training from LivingWorks. He said ASIST, . . . was created to standardize approaches to suicide intervention. It is one of the most straight forward and well thought out trainings I have ever done. It was very intense and left me believing that going forward, I would know how to identify someone who is at risk, be able to assess their degree of risk, and be able to get them the help they’d need.

Pete reflected back on that frightening weekend experience and said, During our conversations, the young man said attending the passage weekend was his last effort at living. I believe had he left that weekend, he would have taken his life. If I had previously done the ASIST suicide intervention training, I would have known more about how to interact with that young man. However, because of my background in working with this age group, I was lucky. I accomplished the important things for him by following my gut and staying supportive and connected.

If you’re working with young people in any form, the ASIST training or something similar might just be a good idea. Short of a workshop, the Internet provides a lot of helpful information on the topic. One example is this article from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). It offers solid information about teen suicide, suicide warning signs, and suggestions about what you might do if you were to encounter a very hopeless and at-risk young man.

Here are the suicide warning signs from NASP:
  • Suicidal threats in the form of direct and indirect statements. Suicide notes and plans. 
  • Prior suicidal behavior. Making final arrangements (e.g., making funeral arrangements, writing a will, giving away prized possessions). 
  • Preoccupation with death. 
  • Changes in behavior, appearance, thoughts and/or feelings.
Suicide Hotline: Finally, if you encounter a young person who is expressing thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). You might just get the information and guidance you need to save a life.



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