By Dr. Victor Schwartz
Medical Director, The Jed Foundation
There are certain life moments that are hard for everyone -- rejection, disappointments, loss -- and most of us have experienced that "this hurt will never go away" feeling. So it's understandable that our initial reaction to friends and family members who are devastated by a break-up is often "you'll get through it." However, we need to pay closer attention. Research shows that, of all the tough transitions we face in life, relationship issues and break-ups are most likely to cause real emotional distress and contribute to dangerous behaviors, especially among young adults.
Data from the National Violent Death Reporting System reveals that almost half of suicides among 18 to 24 year-olds were preceded by a relationship issue or break-up. It's not that relationship problems directly or typically cause suicide, but the associated pain and disappointment can trigger and worsen depression or substance abuse, making the possibility of self-harm much higher.
As the family members and friends of teenagers and college students, when should we worry and what should we do? A healthy or typical recovery from a break-up looks something like this:
Sadness or anger that possibly lasts for a period of time
An initial reluctance to move forward and let go of the relationship
Rushing back into dating other people or avoiding new relationships
As time passes, these feelings start to fade and a normal routine returns. If the suffering of the friend or family member becomes too prolonged or worsens over time, then we need to be concerned and take action. Here are five tips on how you can help:
Talk it Out: Sometimes, sharing your personal stories of overcoming heartbreak or saying it's "all gonna be ok" isn't the best way to help someone who is struggling. More than advice, they may need the opportunity to talk through their own feelings and get it out.
Walk it Out: There is tremendous healing power in just getting up and getting out. Movement, exercise and spending time with friends can provide a positive emotional boost.
Shut it Out: There are so many ways to keep up with an ex's every move these days, especially through social networks. It's important to help people realize that these are often negative coping mechanisms that may prevent them from healing.
Seek it Out: Counselors and mental health professionals are trained to help people work through painful transitions like break-ups. As much as we want to help, sometimes we need the guidance of a pro. Don't be afraid to suggest that someone you care about reach out for help.
Watch Out: Sometimes break-ups can cause or worsen hopelessness that may lead to thoughts of suicide. If you hear comments that sound hopeless like "I just can't take this anymore," or notice dangerous behaviors like increased use of alcohol and drugs or promiscuous behavior, it's important to take action. You can visit halfofus.com for tips on what to do, or you can call 1-800-273-TALK for a free confidential chat about your own struggles or to get advice on how to help a friend.
So the next time you find yourself consoling a friend or family member dealing with a relationship problem or break-up, remember to be supportive AND attentive. Be mindful of signs that reveal any feelings of hopelessness or hints that the person might be coping in unhealthy ways. Above all, don't be afraid to talk about your concerns and encourage them to get help.
To help teenagers and college students deal with these issues, MTV and The Jed Foundation are today launching new PSAs and helpful resources focusing on break-up issues through their Peabody Award-winning Half of Us campaign (halfofus.com). The television spots feature a Break-Up Confession Booth in which a diverse group of young adults admit to unhealthy ways they've tried to deal with their break-up. The spots are designed as thought and conversation starters to make us more aware of the ways we cope with tough situations and what we can do to feel better and help others.