Thirty-eight thousand Americans take their own lives every year. Young men in their early 20s have the second-highest rate of suicide in the country, second only to men older than 65.
Depression is the number one cause of all suicides. But it’s often overlooked and left untreated in young males. That’s because they tend to express their symptoms differently than other populations.
For instance, depressed young men may become more aggressive, resulting in violence, abuse or inappropriate or exaggerated anger.
They can have difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions. They may withdraw from friends and family, often spending excessive amounts of time on the computer. Some report feeling that they are worthless. Others become irritable or restless.
Depressed young males might display unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches or digestive problems. They might have difficulty falling asleep or want to sleep all day long. Their appetite might increase, or they may be unable to eat.
Depressed young men often self-medicate by abusing drugs and alcohol. Their depression may also co-exist with an underlying substance-abuse problem.
In addition, they may engage in self-destructive behaviors such as reckless driving, unsafe sex and gambling.
Some depressed young men commit crimes such as shoplifting or violate family rules. When questioned, they may respond with undue hostility or rudeness.
Depression often leads to thoughts about death or suicide. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, young males are less likely to attempt suicide than females. However, they are more likely to be successful in their attempts.
Depression is a treatable mental illness. But cultural influences often interfere with young men’s ability to get the help they need. They may have difficulties expressing their emotions and are less likely to see a doctor about their symptoms.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a young man is most at risk for committing suicide if he falls into the following categories:
Ongoing mental disorder, especially depression, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse.
Previous suicide attempts.
Family history of attempted or completed suicide.
Victim of childhood abuse.
Stressful life event such as death of a loved one or trouble with the law.
Access to lethal methods of suicide during a time of increased risk.
CONVERSATION WITH A DEPRESSED YOUNG MAN
Tips for talking to a depressed young man:
Be supportive. Let him know you care and that his life has meaning to you. Don’t worry about finding the right words. Your underlying compassion is what’s important.
Listen without lecturing. Allow him to vent his feelings. Make it clear that everything he says is acceptable to you. Try not to act shocked. Never engage him in a discussion about the value of life.
Be gentle but persistent. It’s difficult to talk about suicidal feelings. Your young man may shut down when emotions get too intense. It’s OK to back off from the conversation. But be willing to discuss it at another time.
Don’t promise confidentiality. A young man may ask that you don’t tell anyone else. But a life is at stake. You’ll need to do anything necessary to protect him.
Don’t blame yourself. You’re not responsible for his depression. Nor can you make it go away. You can, however, be part of his support system. That’s the best role for you to play.
Ask about suicide. If a young man talks about feeling worthless or seems depressed, ask, “Have you thought about killing yourself?” You’ll learn more about the severity of his depression while letting him know he can safely discuss his feelings with you.
Offer to find help. Be willing to make an appointment with his physician or a mental health professional. He may be too depressed to do the legwork. His life depends on your swift action.