That’s a whole lot of kids. And some, like Frankie, are able to muster the energy to make their struggle almost invisible. Despite 50 years of research, predicting death by suicide is still nearly impossible. And with suicidal thinking common, suicide remains the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, after accidents.
Like others who have lost a child to suicide, I have spent countless hours going over relentless “what ifs.” And because I am a developmental psychologist who specializes in prevention programs, my “what ifs” also include the ways the world might look different so that another family won’t experience our fate.
One day while driving on a familiar stretch of highway with “what ifs” swirling in my head, I saw a sign flash “Click it or Ticket.” It struck me: Maybe what we need are seatbelts for suicide.
“Click it or Ticket” was born in part out of a concern in the 1980s about teenagers dying in car accidents. Just as with suicides today, adults couldn’t predict who would get into a car accident, and one of the best solutions we had — seatbelts — was used routinely, in some estimates, by only 15 percent of the population. Indeed, as children, my siblings and I used to make a game of rolling around in the back of our car, seatbelts ignored.
Three decades later, our world is unlike anything I could have imagined as a child. Putting on a seatbelt is the first lesson of driver’s education; cars get inspected annually for working seatbelts; car companies embed those annoying beeping sounds to remind you to buckle your seatbelt; and for added measure, highway signs flash that “Click it or Ticket” message as part of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration campaign. The result? Most of us (estimates range as high as 91 percent) now wear a seatbelt.
What would it look like if we had an approach to suicide akin to universal seatbelt safety, starting early in adolescence?
Just as my parents couldn’t predict in the 1980s what seatbelt safety would look like now, I am not sure what suicide prevention should look like in the future. But I imagine a world in which every health worker, school professional, employer and religious leader can recognize the signs of suicidal thinking and know how to ask about it, respond to it and offer resources to someone who is struggling. Just as today we all know to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency (a system that came into being in the late 1960s), we would all know the national suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-TALK, which will also be reachable at 9-8-8 in 2022) and text line (text HOME to 741741). We would “suicide-proof” our homes by locking up handguns, lethal medications and other things teenagers can use to harm themselves. And families would ask their children often about suicidal thinking.