How to Know When Your Teen Needs Help

 As East Tennessee students prepare to return to school after a summer break from many of the day to day pressures of teen life, there will be new pressures and new problems to contend with. For some teens, it’s a burden that may seem too heavy to bear.

Jeff Scarbrough, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Peninsula Lighthouse, says teenagers usually show signs that they’re thinking about suicide, and the most common one is withdrawal. If your child has lost interest in favorite activities, or suddenly has no interest in spending time with friends, something might be wrong.

“You’ll see a lot of isolation, and the things they used to enjoy doing they don’t really enjoy doing anymore,” Scarbrough says. “If he was an avid video game player and he doesn’t play his video games anymore, or if she’s talking on the phone and texting all the time and she suddenly stops – withdrawal is probably the biggest marker that I see.”

Peninsula offers individual counseling, family counseling, case management services, high level care, intensive outpatient programs, and other services to help guide teenagers through turbulent times. There are also support groups and the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network (TSPN) has set up a crisis text line (text “TN” to 741741 for help), so a person who is desperate and on the edge can always find someone with whom to communicate.

A Sense of Hopelessness

It’s hard for adults to understand why a young person who has so many years of joy and adventures ahead would want to end it all. But teenagers tend to live in the here and now. Scarbrough says suicidal ideations (suicidal thoughts) are usually the result of simply being unable to see a future life with all its promise and possibilities.

 “The biggest aspect of the suicide ideology is just hopelessness,” Scarbrough says, “the idea that it’s not going to get better, it can’t get better, and you’re stuck.”

Scarbrough says any change in behavior is something parents and grandparents should take note of. The best way to do that is by having an open relationship with ongoing conversations.

Approach your teens in a nonjudgmental way, ask how they’re doing, and let them know you’re always available to talk. It’s also important to be well acquainted enough with your child’s world to know when upsetting events are happening.

“Cyber bullying is huge,” Scarbrough says, “or the end of a relationship.” He strongly recommends monitoring your child’s activity on social media.

Other Red Flags Another frequent warning sign that your teen may be contemplating suicide is preoccupation with death or self-harm. He or she may be visiting web sites or social media groups that demonstrate ways to end life or hurt oneself.

The sense of hopelessness can also lead to a sense of carelessness “They’ll start doing very reckless things,” Scarbrough says. “Whether it’s substance abuse, or seeing how fast a car can really go.”

Scarbrough calls suicide “a long term solution to a very short term problem.” Hopelessness can escalate to suicidal ideations quickly, so it’s important to help distraught teenagers see that their current situation isn’t permanent, and that there is hope for the future.

“Your actions flow from what you believe about something, and if they believe it’s never going to get better, they may think this is the action that will end the pain,” Scarbrough says.

If you suspect your child is dealing with depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideations, talk to a physician about a referral to Peninsula for help. “Parents should have no fear about asking for help beyond the doctor’s office,” Scarbrough says. “Parents can’t fix it all, and kids have to figure out how to handle these things by themselves, but we can walk the journey with them.”

Scarbrough says any threat of suicide should be taken seriously, and you should never challenge a teen to commit suicide, whether it’s out of frustration, in an attempt to call a bluff, or even as a joke. To learn more about the help Peninsula can offer teens and their families, visit or call 865-970-9800.