Teenage suicide – missing the signs

teenage suicide family

I woke up on Thursday morning (12 August) and saw a message posted to my FB timeline “Dear Kate, it seems it was also suicide like with your boy, same age.” Along with the mother’s message “My daughter, Klara (14) died tonight.”  I remembered the angelic face, blonde curls and clear blue eyes of Klara Göttert,  reported missing, which had gone viral the previous day. And I felt a sharp shard pierce my chest,  I’d been winded, like I’d never breathe again and I was taken right back to the day I heard the words “come home, he’s killed himself”.

My only son John Peter Shand Butler – also known as BOY or simply JP – was a quiet, shy, solitary boy. He chose to end his life at the age of 14 on 31 March 2011. A perfect storm was gathering and we were oblivious. It was years in the making. A combination of his biology, psychology, physiology, biography and genealogy.  The clouds were there. Sometimes we glimpsed them but we just didn’t know how to decipher them. My son didn’t shout out for us to listen. He was so very quiet with his call for help that I didn’t hear.

His increasing anxiety manifested as eczema on his hands and his face, and he started smoking dagga as a way to self-medicate and manage this stress. The storm was moving in. I sensed that JP was feeling disconnected and agitated but I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t act. I thought I had time. Except there was no time. While I was procrastinating, not acting, wondering what to do, wondering what was wrong with him – JP had already made his decision.

After suicide we search for signs. We want signs to be replicable. If we can only identify the signs we can avoid such a tragedy happening again. Yet the warning signs are but a feeling that can’t be articulated for how does one give language to the unimaginable, the unthinkable? Each child and each situation is unique, and so the warning signs will be different every time. A mother wrote to me – Yes there were signs I missed, or dismissed, or that I didn’t understand as being ‘a sign’, or that I didn’t understand as being ‘a sign OF SUICIDE’.

Why don’t we know? The answer is simple – because we’re not looking for it.

My oldest daughter is very clear about what needs to be done. She says that parents and schools must talk about depression and suicide to children. Children must understand what depression feels like and that there is help available. That they don’t have to feel that way. The talk about depression must be as important as the safe sex talk. “Kind of like safe living” she said. Teenagers hide it all. They hide that they are smoking dope, they hide that they’re having sex, they hide smoking cigarettes, they hide that they’re bunking school. They are also able to hide that they are depressed.

I am wary of giving advice but I can say that if I had the time back and if I could do things differently it would be to ACT and not wait. Don’t think about it. Do something about it. I would listen to my intuition and trust my gut. If you think there’s a problem there is one – I read that somewhere. Get professional help, a diagnosis, therapy and if necessary medication. If you discover your child is using drugs, alcohol or self-harming, get him or her into a programme immediately. Sit down regularly for family suppers, have conversations with your children and learn to listen to them. I have a friend who was suicidal as a teen and he wonders if his parents had said to him “you are in a terrible long war, but it will end, and you will survive” would it have helped? They never said anything. Most importantly we all need to practice kindness. And as parents we must exert pressure on  school governing bodies  to develop informed policies for suicide prevention, to prevent bullying and to protect children from being shamed by teachers. If we work together – schools, home and the community – maybe then we can help save a young life.

Click here to find a list of therapeutic support services for teens and families

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Kate Shand

Kate Shand

Kate Shand is the mother of four children. After the suicide of her son, she wrote a book called BOY. She works as a freelance writer and editor. When asked to, she gives talks on Grief and Creativity. 

5 Responses

  1. Gone through this – my son survived. What did I learn? I do not know – except that afterwards my students (raped, gay, parents bankrupt or teminally ill) began to trust me with their pain. Somtimes they would come fighht with me for little reason – only later to talk about their pain. Did they see a kind of unconditionality in me? I do not know. It is often difficult for young people to talk to their parents – how do I tell my conservative parents I smoke dope; I am a lesbian …

  2. Often the children themselves do not know exactly what makes them attempt to end it. Although we found signs of satanist fears afterwards, and he was using drugs – he was always naughty and rebellious before. He became a conflict personality as a teenager. But ask him exactly what triggered his shooting himself … he cannot rell it in words

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