Our own YouthLine volunteer speaks out about middle school, technology’s potential in suicide prevention, and their own experience helping a friend in need.
Middle school is often regarded as some of the worst years in a person’s life. During this period of three years, hormones, friends, drama, and often newfound family issues plague our lives. For me personally, I had it pretty easy, I’ve always had a good relationship with my parents, the drama never affected me in a serious way, and I had pretty great friends. But for some of my closest friends, the opposite was true.
These problems are intensified by the rise in mental health issues among teens in recent decades, which has created a devastating rise in suicidal thoughts and attempts made by the youth of all demographics just about everywhere in the world. There are no confirmed causes for this, but many well-backed theories speculate that this rise is in correlation with the advancement of technology, especially that of screens: smartphones, tablets, computers, and so on. This is because our relationship with our tech often isolates us, keeping us from face to face human interaction. In addition, not just teens, but everyone tends to use social media to compare themselves to other people, which often leads to feelings of discontent about one’s own life. But before we ban all technology and force teens to talk to each other in person exclusively, it’s worth asking ourselves, “How can technology help?” This question is very seldom considered when we talk about the correlation between technology and the rise in teen mental health problems, but it’s an important one and one that can be very useful to those of us working to prevent suicide.
Because I generally had a pretty easy time in middle school, I quickly became known as the person everyone could come to in order to talk about their problems. I enjoyed being a source of support for people, and being able to work through things with my friends brought a lot of pride and self-esteem into my life. A lot of people would be surprised to find out, though, that most of these interactions took place over text. For us teens, we find a certain power in not having to say something out loud. A lot of us will even tell you that we prefer texting to talking on the phone. By far, most of the contacts we talk to at the Oregon Youthline reach out to us through text. Some people may find that concerning, but think of it this way: If I’m texting someone, and they feel comforted by not having to say something out loud, then it becomes ten times easier for them to say, “I’m thinking of suicide.” This exact scenario came true for me just last year.
When I was in the eighth grade, one of my close friends texted me a concerning message- what most in the suicide prevention world would call an “invitation”. Though I hadn’t yet been through the training which I went through in the process of becoming a Youthline volunteer, after a few texts back and forth, I quickly realized that my friend was in trouble. Because I was able to get the information I needed through text, I was able to call for a wellness check, which led to my friend’s recovery from what turned out to be a suicide attempt. Without my phone’s texting function, it’s very likely that I wouldn’t have been able to do that, and Oregon Youthline would not be able to do the important work that we do every day.
These days, while I can’t say it has been easy for my friend since that night, they are on the path to recovery, and most importantly, they know how to reach out for help, even if it ends up being over text. Many are quick to assume that technology is all bad when it comes to this discussion, but it is vitally important that we recognize that with every negative comes a positive and that with proper education about the power held by these devices we hold in our hand every day, they can become a tool that we can use for good, and maybe even help us save lives.