As an American teenager in 2011, I did what plenty of 18-year-olds do after high school. In late August, I moved into a college dorm at Grand Valley State University in Allendale. I met my roommate and embarked on what was the greatest adventure of my life — filled with learning and laughter; and above all other things, hard work.
In my freshman year, I met wonderful people, learned from passionate and inspiring teachers, and managed my own schedule without the advisement of my parents. There were a lot of days when I was doubtful that I could handle the pressure of classwork and all of my other involvements, but I surrounded myself with strong, supportive friends who helped me through the tougher times.
I’m headed back to Grand Valley in the fall to pursue a degree in journalism. But over the course of my relative success story as an independent college student, many people in my age group have lost their lives to a unique kind of tragedy, one that is not easy to understand, and even harder to accept.
In February, my college roommate, Evan, lost a friend to suicide. The kid was our age. His friends who I knew personally at Grand Valley were in disbelief and had a difficult time coming to terms with what had happened.
I received a similar bit of news earlier this summer. In mid-June, another friend of mine, Travis, with whom I lived in the dorms at GVSU, called me up after leaving the funeral of a friend who had taken his own life on the morning of his high school graduation ceremony. Travis must be going through the same emotional dilemma that he attested to when I spoke with him on the phone — something I cannot imagine handling myself.
I have never experienced this kind of loss firsthand, but it happens to so many struggling teenagers, so many people like me, that it must be addressed as both a personal and a public issue. Suicide is not an uncommon thing.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Suicide is a major, preventable public health problem.” There are more than 36,000 suicide deaths in the United States every year, and it’s currently the third leading risk of death among teenagers.
So, of all the things that we fear as young adults, rational and irrational, from auto accidents to lightning bolts, one of our greatest real threats exists within us.
Evidently, suicide is not the unthinkable. It can happen to people of all age groups, but in teenagers the risk factors are complex but often explainable. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that 90 percent of suicide victims have had a psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.
Alcohol and drugs may also impact a person’s decision to end his or her life, and the leading method of suicide is with a firearm. Eighty-three percent of firearm incidents are suicides, often by someone other than the gun owner.
Teenagers are at risk in all of these ways, and there are all kinds of external pressures — including financial, academic, familial and social responsibilities — that can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide.
Another factor that I had not considered arrived in the mail the other day. The latest issue of Time Magazine's cover story reveals the alarming statistic that “more U.S. soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the Afghan War.”
I had to stop and think about some of my close friends from high school who are currently in town, but are headed back soon enough to continue military training. They are at a higher risk than any of my college friends or any other teens that chose not to enlist. Yet, they are still teenagers, going through their own set of adversities that — like the thought of losing a close friend — I cannot come close to imagining. It seems that I have it easy.
The causes of record-high suicide levels among those serving in the military are unclear, according to Time. But enlisted or not, the threat is there.
Regardless of the cause, there is help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 for anyone who is experiencing or has experienced suicidal thoughts, or anyone who is concerned for the life of another. The number is 800-237-TALK.
The resources are out there — it just requires the care and courage to seek them out.
Kent County Community Health says there are about 500 calls placed daily to its suicide lifeline.
We need to support our friends and ensure that they get the help they need.
Next month, I’m back to the college atmosphere, surrounded by my peers. I urge others who live and work so closely with struggling kids, teens, adults, students and soldiers to offer your support, and give them another reason to live.
— By Alexander Sinn, one of our new community columnists. His columns will appear in the Tribune on the fourth Tuesdays of each month.