Last night I had the privilege of attending the No More symposium for teen suicide prevention, hosted by Paschal High School (where a large number of our high school youth attend).
Their main speaker was Dr. Kathleen Powderly, and if you don’t know who she is, you should. She was a hospitalist at Cook’s Children’s for years, where, after a spike in children admitted for suicide attempts, she started tracking rates, causes, and contributing factors, and has produced important and insightful data not just on teenage suicidal ideation generally, but on how it affects our specific community. I’ve seen her speak multiple times, and could talk about her work all day, but there’s one specific finding of hers that I want to highlight for our community.
She identified two major archetypes of children who attempt suicide in our community: the first are children with a significant amount of adverse childhood experiences (parental incarceration, mental illness, or substance abuse, poverty, unstable home life, exposure to or victimization through domestic violence, etc.) who can see no way to escape their current situation.
The second archetype are high-achieving kids from stable, upper-middle class, two-parent households without no, or few, noted adverse childhood experiences. Kids with high family academic expectations, large amounts of extracurricular activity, and little experience of failure.
As she described that second archetype of student, who is in six AP classes, who is on varsity and travel soccer, who stays up late finishing homework and gets up early for workouts, who does a retake of a quiz because they got an 85, you could have heard a pin drop in the room.
Because that was a kid we all knew. That was 100 kids we all knew.
She highlighted the contributing factors for this second archetype’s propensity toward suicidal ideation — disturbance of sleep pattern, lack of unscheduled time to relieve stress, and no practiced resilience for failure. This scenario creates high anxiety and poor mental health, and when that is combined with a “precipitating event,” like not getting onto the team, or into the dream school, bullying, or an experience of social rejection, and the impulsivity of adolescence, can lead to suicide attempts.
There is much that can be said for limiting sleep disturbances, being cognizant of the effects of implicit or explicit expectations at home, increasing emotional support networks and other protective factors, but I want to focus in for a moment on the other, more surprising risk factor: little or no experience of failure.
Rev. Lance Marshall’s Lenten sermon series on Fear kicked off with a sermon on the fear of failure. I recommend it, and you can watch it here. He highlighted that this fear is particularly strong in teenagers and adolescents and can be absolutely debilitating. I would add, as someone who grew up a high-achieving kid from a two-parent household, that the more potential that kid is perceived as having (and told that they have, over and over and over again), the more afraid they are of failure.
The fear of failure is deeply connected to a lack of experience of failure — they have no evidence to prove that they can survive failure, that people will still love them when they fail, that life moves on after failure, that failure can teach because they’ve never failed at anything.
In Lance’s sermon, he highlighted the experience of Peter, who catastrophically failed in his denial of Jesus. In Lance’s words, Peter “failed harder than any of us will ever even have the opportunity to fail.” For all the potential that Jesus saw in him, calling him the rock on which he would build the church, for all of the promises he made that he would never betray Jesus, he fully and totally failed when it really mattered. Scripture says that when Peter realized what he had done, he wept uncontrollably.
I wonder if Peter considered suicide?
After Peter survives the experience of real and traumatic failure, his story continues. He meets the resurrected Jesus and is re-instated. He is still called the Rock, still called to be the founder of the church. Peter learns that there is something after failure, there is reconciliation and second chances, and hope, no matter how catastrophic the failure may be.
So how do we show teenagers that there’s hope on the other side of failure? We share with them the stories of our faith tradition, like that of Peter or the Prodigal Son. We share our own stories of failure, we tell stories of second chances and reconciliation. We talk about what we learned, without skipping over the parts where it was really hard for a while first. We let teenagers fail. We let children fail safely while they have the support they need to show them that failure isn’t the end of the world. (Dr. Powderly had some great specific suggestions on how to do this at different age ranges; feel free to ask about them).
Our faith tradition is ultimately one defined by hope — hope of life after death, of transformation of us and the world, and of redemption even after failure. As we teach children our faith, one of the most powerful, counter-cultural, and perhaps even life-saving thing we can teach them is that they are not any less loved or wanted or worthy when they fail, and that they can be called the rock of the church regardless.