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Why My Daughter Tried to Kill Herself

Teen suicide is on the rise — one father tries to find answers

girl listening to music on headphones under a bunkbed
Amy relaxes in her bedroom. Tim Klein

My daughter Amy was 14 years old the first time she tried to kill herself, cutting herself pretty badly. She tried again at 15, this time with pills. In the ER, we sat with a young physician’s assistant, who confided: "I did the same thing when I was your age. It’s hard being a girl."

Amy is far from alone. Since 2009, American teens who say they feel "persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness" jumped from 26 percent to 44 percent, according to a new CDC study. One in five say they’ve contemplated suicide; among kids like Amy, who identify as gay, that number is one in two.

But why my child? And why now? Amy, who recently turned 16, is an A student, a voracious reader, and secure in her sexuality. From the outside, she seems to have everything stacked in her favor. Why did killing herself seem like the only option to her? There was only one person who could answer that question. 

What follows is a lightly edited conversation between me and my daughter about the things no man wants to ask the person he loves. 

What are the things that make you want to hurt yourself?

Amy: That’s a really complicated question. Even though everything right now might be fine — I’m totally safe and healthy — I might also feel like things are two seconds away from collapsing. It’s important to not view this strictly logically because I did not use logic to put myself in this position.

What are the warning signs I should be looking for?

Physical things. It doesn’t take a genius to see self-harm scars. But there are smaller things, too. Not brushing teeth, having a hard time getting up in the morning, grades slipping. A lot of things that society deems as lazy. As a parent, you need to be proactive. Check that they are brushing their teeth, check that they are showering. And if they fail these checks, don’t treat it as a punishment. Treat it as, "What can I do to support you?" If you come at it towards negativity, it’s just going to spiral them more. 

Look at their eating patterns. Are they not eating enough? Are they eating too much? Are they shamefully eating in the room, trying to hide it from you? Watch out for them asking for rice cakes; that’s a very popular anorexia food. Watch out for them asking for pickles. That’s a zero-calorie food a lot of anorexia people ask for.

Tell me about why it’s hard to ask for what you need.

So a lot of times for girls, we’re told to just shut up, do what we can and take up as little space as possible. Oftentimes it’s weirdly shameful to ask for things I need. I know when I was a kid, I would steal from the local QuikTrip [store] because I was too afraid to ask you for a can of Pringles.

You went to therapy after your mom and I split. Was that helpful?

Having a safe space to just talk, even if it takes a while to build up trust — I’m very glad I did that. It’s important to get a therapist who actually takes women seriously. When I first went in-patient [after my first suicide attempt], I had a male doctor who would constantly deny all of my symptoms as "teenage girl drama." Um, yeah, trying to kill myself is definitely just teenage girl drama.

Let’s talk about why you wanted to kill yourself.

School stress was really hard. Home life was really hard. I constantly felt like I was holding my breath. I didn’t feel like I could rely on anything. My friends were falling apart. I mean, everything kind of added up. And one day a kid on the bus called me fat and I kind of just ... it can feel like things are never going to get better, and it feels easier to just …

Close the book.

Yeah. Every single teenager struggles with mental health. And I don’t care how perfect, how normal, how OK you think your child is, you need to make sure they’re OK. I know my friend with a 4.1 GPA, president in every club, she was having suicidal idealizations [sic] not that long ago. And her parents refused to listen to her because she was Miss Perfect. I think it’s easy to be in denial as a parent. 

Constant affection to your kids is not a bad thing — saying, “I love you. I care about you.” I was surprised how many parents don’t say that on a regular basis. I’d say there’s nothing wrong with showing regular affection to your child.

[If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available around the clock, 365 days a year, at 800-273-8255, or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.]

[This month, AARP is launching an initiative that focuses on the challenges of teens in 2022, with a special report in AARP Bulletin, stories throughout aarp.org, and a virtual summit with experts and teens on September 20th, hosted by Arrow editor-in-chief Stephen Perrine. For more stories, advice, and insights, and to join us for this important and informative round table, please register today.]