ADOLESCENT SUICIDE, DEPRESSION, AND WHAT WE CAN DO TO HELP
By Melanie Rushing
Our softball world was rocked recently when a viral social media thread searching for a 13-year old softball player turned up terrible news. She had gone missing and was reported to be “an at-risk teen.” A few days later, she was found: a victim of suicide.
This is a very tough topic, but one that is unfortunately becoming more and more common, especially among adolescents. Though the stories are very tough to hear, it is important to have these conversations. Because what is worse than talking about suicide and depression is dealing with its aftermath. Below is a TEDx talk from the mother of a suicide victim. Again, it is a tough topic, but worth watching.
There have been countless, tragic cases like this where the person “seemed fine” and gave little to no outward clues of unhappiness or suicidal ideation. It is difficult to spot the symptoms sometimes when the person is hiding their feelings due to shame or guilt. The issue is the stigma and lack of awareness concerning mental health. So what do we do to help our friends and loved ones?
In this article, I will follow Ms. Keene’s guide in hopes of being able to connect with and help even one softball player, athlete, or person in general, when they are struggling with depression. This is how to help prevent suicide and help someone dealing with depression:
Get it – Manage it – Share it
Every 100 minutes a teen takes their own life.
Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24.
About 20% of all teens experience depression before they reach adulthood.
Between 10 – 15% suffer from symptoms at any one time.
4/5 teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs
Over 90% of people who die by suicide have a mental illness
Untreated depression is the #1 cause of suicide
Prevalence rate of depression among college athletes ranges from 15.6 – 21%
Only 30% of depressed teens are being treated for it.
TheJasonFoundation.com & PsyCom.net
These statistics are unsettling to say the least. Let’s begin by addressing depression. Major depressive disorder is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. Fortunately, it is also treatable. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.
Though physical activity and sport have been proven to help guard against major depression, athletes are not immune. In an ESPN article, Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s first chief medical officer, reveals his concerns regarding student suicide:
“The dangerous thing,” Hainline explains, “is how many people do not view athletes as people who are susceptible to mental illnesses such as depression. There is a misconception that athletes are somehow different than other people in terms of how they internalize pain and trauma. The same problems that regular students have with mental health are the same problems student athletes have.”
Athletes are no exception to these statistics, so it is important to be on the lookout for signs. If a player or someone you know exhibits any of the following symptoms, reach out to them. If the symptoms last two weeks or more, that qualifies as major depressive disorder, and it is time to seek professional help.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION
Feeling sad, empty, hopeless or irritable
Not getting any enjoyment in activities that were previously considered fun
Significant weight loss or gain, or change in appetite
Excessively tired or unable to sleep
Increased restlessness or sluggishness
Fatigued, with no energy
Feeling worthless or guilty
difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
Recurring thoughts of death, suicide or plans for committing suicide
Feeling “blah,” having no feelings, or feeling anxious,
Unexplainable bodily aches and pains
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
Many people want to help, but don’t know what to do in such a situation. Even without training in counseling and psychology, there are ways you can help when you see someone in crisis.
Focus on listening, not lecturing. Resist any urge to criticize or pass judgment once they begin to talk. The important thing is that they are communicating. You’ll do the most good by simply letting your them know that you’re there for them, fully and unconditionally.
Be gentle but persistent. Don’t give up if they shut you out at first. Talking about depression can be very tough. Even if they want to, they may have a hard time expressing what they’re feeling. Be respectful of their comfort level while still emphasizing your concern and willingness to listen.
Acknowledge their feelings. Don’t try to talk them out of depression, even if their feelings or concerns seem silly or irrational to you. Well-meaning attempts to explain why “things aren’t that bad” will just come across as if you don’t take their emotions seriously. Simply acknowledging the pain and sadness they are experiencing can go a long way in making them feel understood and supported.
Trust your gut. If they claim nothing is wrong but have no explanation for what is causing the depressed behavior, you should trust your instincts. If they won’t open up to you, consider turning to a trusted third party: a school counselor, favorite teacher, or a mental health professional. The important thing is to get them talking to someone.
If the person is more comfortable, perhaps suggest that they take a short, anonymous and confidential depression test. This diagnostic tool can help them explain and verbalize what is going on with them.
We all hope to catch these signs of depression before the person gets so far as to consider suicide, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. Below are warning signs that signal it is time to get them professional help.
WARNING SIGNS FOR SUICIDE
Talking about dying: any mention of dying, disappearing, jumping, shooting oneself or other types of self-harm.
Recent loss: through death, divorce, separation, broken relationship, self-confidence, self-esteem, loss of interest in friends, hobbies or activities previously enjoyed.
Change in personality: sad, withdrawn, irritable, anxious, tired, indecisive, apathetic.
Change in behavior: can’t concentrate on school, work or routine tasks.
Change in sleep patterns: insomnia, often with early waking or oversleeping, or nightmares.
Change in eating habits: loss of appetite and weight, or overeating.
Fear of losing control: acting erratically, harming self or others.
Low self-esteem: feeling worthless, shame, overwhelming guilt, self-hatred, “everyone would be better off without me.”
No hope for the future: believing things will never get better, or that nothing will ever change, giving away belongings, closing social media accounts
Seeking professional help doesn’t have to be intimidating or difficult. This guide can help parents, coaches and friends figure out if and how to help someone exhibiting signs of depression. If you or the affected person would like to speak someone right away, consider calling a free hotline. Calling a depression hotline is your opportunity to:
Get information about depression and general mental health disorders.
Talk to someone who understands what you are going through.
Receive help confidentially and anonymously.
Find a counselor, therapist, or mental health treatment facility.
Learn how depression is treated.
Discover how to help a loved one who is experiencing depression.
Get more information about how depression is related to other mental health issues.
FREE HOTLINE NUMBERS
Text HOME to 741741
SAMHSA’s behavioral health treatment services locator is an easy and anonymous way to locate treatment facilities and other resources, such as support groups and counselors, to treat and manage depression.
If your depression is leading to suicidal thoughts, call the National Hopeline to connect with a depression treatment center in your area. The Hopeline also offers a live chat feature for those who don’t want to (or are unable to) call and can dispatch emergency crews to your location if necessary.
This national hotline is another valuable resource for people whose depression has escalated to suicidal or other harmful thoughts. Their network of crisis centers provide emotional support and guidance to people in distress and are also available via a chat service and a special hotline number for the hearing impaired: 1-800-799-4889.
National Youth Crisis Hotline
This resource provides brief interventions for youth who are dealing with pregnancy, sexual abuse, child abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts. They also provide referrals to local counseling, treatment centers, and shelters
Depression is becoming more prevalent, but there are ways to help deal with and possibly prevent major depressive disorder and suicide. It’s important to manage this disease on as many fronts as possible. Though softball is about improving and showcasing physical skills, it is also about improving our mental health and stamina. Below are some suggestions you can follow as a coach, parent and friend.
ENCOURAGE SOCIAL CONNECTION
Those who are depressed tend to withdraw from their friends and the activities they used to enjoy. But isolation only makes depression worse, so do what you can to help them reconnect.
Make getting to know each other on a personal level a priority As a team, set aside a little time for this each practice. It can be just five to ten minutes, but devote ALL of your attention to the task. Start with a quote or question about a topic that is bigger than the X’s and O’s. For example, a simple topic may be, “What was your favorite moment in your softball career so far?” If you want to dig into a deeper topic, but don’t want to run short on time, you could give your players a question the night before a practice and then discuss together the next day. One example may be, “What makes you nervous or anxious in or before games?” Hearing their teammates’ answers will not only help them get to know each other better- it will also allow them to see that others are experiencing similar thoughts and emotions.
Combat social isolation and cliques. Certain personalities are naturally going to be more drawn to one another, and that is absolutely okay. However, cliques and people feeling left out are very harmful. You can help navigate this issue by pairing different players up as accountability partners. They can set daily goals together, work together on drills, and even compete as a duo. Rotate the pairings throughout the season until everyone has worked together. Take it a step further and utilize the pairs to drive conversations getting to know one another. For example, ask each pair to come up with a daily question or quote that means something to them. It’s also a good way to find out what’s important to them personally.
Connect off the field too. Yes, we do already spend a lot of time together on the field, but spending time together off the field is just as, if not more, important. You could go all out and go on a team building adventure or retreat, or you could do something simple like going out to eat as a team after games or practice. In order to make them feel comfortable, it’s best to let the players have space to themselves, without parents and coaches. Let the girls sit at one big table together and talk about whatever their hearts desire!
Promote looking out for others. Whether it’s finding a community service activity to do as a team, or simply asking a teammate how they’re doing, helping others is a powerful antidepressant. Encourage kindness with each other and compassion for the well-being others. Ask your players what causes are important to them and find opportunities to volunteer. It will give you a sense of purpose and be a form of team bonding.
ENCOURAGE PHYSICAL HEALTH
Physical and mental health are connected. Depression is worsened by inactivity, inadequate sleep, and poor nutrition. Unfortunately, adolescents are known for their unhealthy habits: staying up late, eating junk food, and spending hours on their phones and devices. But we can combat these behaviors by establishing a healthy, supportive environment.
Get enough exercise. The good news here is that exercise is already a big part of the sport culture. To get even more benefits of physical exercise, encourage teens to mix things up. Play a different sport, go for hikes with friends, walk the dog- all of these activities provide exercise, social connection and a time to escape the stresses of everyday life. Help them find activities they enjoy and then support them in doing so- even if that takes some time away from softball or school!
“In conclusion, adolescent mental health issues rose sharply since 2010, especially among females. New media screen time is both associated with mental health issues and increased over this time period. Thus, it seems likely that the … rise of screen time and adolescent depression and suicide is not coincidental.”
The study recommended limiting use of phones to 1-2 hours per day. I know I fail that test! It will likely be difficult to limit phones to that amount right away, we can at least begin by limiting it during softball. Try leaving the phone at home on the way to and from softball. That’s a challenge, but it’s one worth trying. To help the players buy into the concept, present it as a challenge, and show them alternatives: aka talking in person! You can also share with them these benefits of getting outdoors without their phones.
Eat healthier food. We all know the options at the ball park are the WORST when it comes to nutrition. You have to plan ahead if you want to be able to say no to the oh-so-tempting cheese sticks and hot dogs. It’s difficult coming up with tasty, healthy food ideas every game and practice, so work as a team! Create a group text or even a Facebook Group for your team and, among other things, use it to share healthy food ideas. It will take a little extra planning, but will significantly help your players’ energy level, ability to focus, and mood.
This can also be difficult for athletes at this age because there are often early games, practices and other responsibilities, but adolescents typically stay up late. Sleep is VITAL for brain function, emotion regulation, physical performance and overall well-being, so do what it takes to make sure they get enough sleep. Find out what is keeping them up late, ask why it is important to them to be doing that thing, and find a compromise that allows them to get to bed earlier. Often times, student-athletes are simply so busy during the day that they need to stay up late at night to study. It may be necessary then to cut something out or at least shorten it.
BE A POSITIVE INFLUENCE
TEACH AND DEVELOP MENTAL TOUGHNESS
Mental toughness cannot completely prevent depression and other mental illnesses, but it can help players and coaches deal with the causes and symptoms. Below are some ways to build mental toughness.
If you want more resources on mental toughness, I have free resources on my site, Mental Sweet Spot, and social media (Instagram, Facebook & Twitter). There is also a private group for coaches on Facebook: Mental Sweet Spot Coaches’ Mastermind. I am not a counselor, but I have degreed in Sport Psychology and Leadership, so I can at least help by providing some resources to our girls. Please feel free to reach out with any questions or requests.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest problems is the stigma of mental health. We are getting better about talking about it without judgement, but we still have a ways to go. The first step is to realize that it is okay to not feel okay. We talk a lot in sports about “Fake it til you make it” and “Don’t show your emotions,” which are very useful in the moment of performance. However, you can’t hide or avoid negative emotions. They are ever-present and they are real, and they are affecting a lot of players more than they let on. Here are some reasons why it is ok to feel bad.
The next tip is to make sure we’re looking after our own mental health. Just like some of the tips above, here are ways to make sure you’re taking care of yourself so you can be in a position to help others in need.
IT’S TIME TO TALK
Finally, we need to all be aware of this disease and the resources available to us. I’ve listed the site I’ve referenced below, as well as Lynn Keane’s site she created to help destigmatize the disease. I challenge you: make everyone you coach, work with and love aware of this information. If we all Get, Manage and Share about depression and suicide, we could possibly save a life.
We need to pull back the curtains on mental illness. Our softball community is special. We are a close-knit community who cares about one another. It was shown recently with the search for Emma, and in the aftermath with professional players and peers showing love and compassion for one another.
I have a challenge for you. Share this article, another article addressing mental illness, your own story, with #TimeToTalk, or simply post the hashtag and get people’s attention. Imagine if you sharing on social media helped ONE person who was struggling with depression or other mental illness. What if you inspired ONE person to ask for help? It just takes a few seconds of your time. And here’s a super challenge: do this as often as you can- not just today, and not just on social media. Reach out, show someone you care, and perhaps you can be their reason to be happier.
Thank you for reading, and remember:
YOU ARE IMPORTANT, YOU ARE LOVED, AND YOU ARE WORTHY.
PS For an informative podcast about this subject, check out the Firecrackers TV interview with a softball coach who is also a suicide prevention specialist and mother of someone who attempted suicide. Firecrackers Suicide Prevention Podcast
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
National Hopeline Network 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-800-448-4663
BelievePerform.com (infographics); social @believephq
Firecrackers Suicide Prevention Podcast