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College of Human Ecology

Family therapy with suicidal adolescents topic of new book by K-State professor

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

MANHATTAN -- Tony Jurich knows how precarious life can be, especially for an adolescent. The professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University tells this story:

A young man came into his office, brought by terrified parents who heard the teen muttering about killing himself.

Suicidal adolescents often occupy the worn black leather couch where the young man slumped. Jurich has been a therapist specializing in youth suicide for 36 years. He has not lost one.

The forlorn young man was not to be consoled.

With gentle nudges honed from years of experience and research, Jurich drew out the young man's story -- girlfriend gone and life spiraling out of control. His only spark of interest came from cars and, well, why would he need a car with no girlfriend and no place to go.

"If your car was broken, what would you do?" Jurich asked.

"Fix it," came the answer.

"What if the problem was the battery? Would you get a new battery or throw out the car?" the counselor asked.

"Oh, Dr. J., I wouldn't throw out the car!" the young man answered, looking at Jurich as if he had suddenly sprouted a second head.

The professor paused. The young man stared. Suddenly, the teenager nodded. Of course. Why throw away your whole life if only part of it was broken.

Jurich has compiled similar examples into his new book "Family Therapy with Suicidal Adolescents," published by Routledge. The book outlines the therapeutic style he developed through research, theory, ideas and counseling with thousands of suicidal adolescents and their families in his effort to treat the individuals and understand the nature of suicide and its special fascination for youth. The publisher calls it "a blend of insight-oriented, behavioral and strategic family therapy..."

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people age 15-25, Jurich said, and he believes the numbers are underreported.

"In a culture where medical science treats death as the 'enemy' to be conquered, we find it particularly disturbing that so many people, especially young people, choose death, as opposed to life," he said.

Suicide is a pervasive theme in the adolescent culture - music, popular actors, films -- and few are unaffected by it, Jurich said.

Suicide is a very complicated phenomenon. Basically, a teen contemplates suicide when stress outweighs the ability to cope with the stress, he said.

Teens think they are invincible, Jurich said. So when they feel psychological pain, they are more apt to feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and the belief that they have no control over their lives.

He calls hopelessness and helplessness the Molotov cocktail that triggers teen suicide.

At this point, the teen either develops new coping skills or fails to cope to a point where death seems to be a reasonable solution. Self-concept is a crucial factor, Jurich's research has found. Teens with high self-esteem and ego strength are more willing to take the chance to try new coping strategies.

Traditionally, books about therapy have focused only on a single type of therapy. The therapy most often used with suicidal individuals is cognitive-behavioral therapy. Jurich, using his hybrid of the science of theory and the art of therapeutic practice, treats the entire family.

Family therapy produces the best results when working with suicidal adolescents, he said. It is the "magic sword for taming the beast of suicide."

According to Jurich, research has pinpointed five factors that are most important in the lives of adolescents: physical, personal, family, peers and community. Each contributes to a person feeling alone and overwhelmed.

Of these, the family may be the single most important factor in an adolescent's suicidal thoughts or actions. A family can be unengaged with the child or too engaged with the child, not allowing room for independence and growth, Jurich said.

In his study on accident survivors of suicide attempts, 63 percent of the adolescents listed family as the primary long-term cause of their attempt.

"Family therapy cannot only change the adolescent's ideas and behaviors but also can alter the attitudes and behaviors of the rest of the family members, especially parents," he said.

Source: Tony Jurich, 785-532-1488, jurich@k-state.edu
News release prepared by: Jane Marshall, 785-532-1519, jpm2@k-state.edu

This article was posted on Tuesday, April 29, 2008, and is filed under College News, Family Studies & Human Services.