LOVE LIFE: 8 Thinking Errors Common Among Suicidal Students

Posted on by YFC Seattle

By Warren Mainard and Mark Haug

In the complex labyrinth of teen mental health, a significant factor in the progression toward teen suicide is cognitive distortions, or “thinking errors.”  “Thinking errors are irrational patterns of thinking that can both cause depression and be caused by depression.” (Psychology Today). Thinking errors are generally the result of a person’s subjective assessment (or narrative) of an early life experience that shapes and maintains their fundamental thoughts and understanding of themselves and their surrounding world.  Essentially, a thinking error can cause a student to spiral into more depressive and suicidal thoughts.  Youth Leaders and Parents should be aware of these thinking errors and develop strategies for identifying and redirecting cognitive distortions.  Here are 8 of the most common and harmful thinking errors for students.

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking: Students can easily fall into “all or nothing thinking” in a number of areas.  Success or failure, good or bad, overwhelmed or bored, are just a few examples.  Students demonstrating this type of thinking can be convinced that their current circumstances are more extreme and permanent than they actually are.  Youth Leaders and parents should ask questions that take the student through a series of previous examples in which what they thought something was more extreme than it actually was.  Asking questions about the outcomes of these circumstances can also lead students to think critically about what the real life impact of their situation may be.
  2. Overgeneralizing: Students may easily assume that the implications of one experience in their lives can be universally be transferrable to other circumstances.  A student may conclude, “I failed my math quiz… I will always be bad at math." Or, “this person was mean to me, she will always hate me.”  Students need to be reminded that we should not overgeneralize about ourselves or others… “we all have a bad day, we all make mistakes, but those mistakes do not define us.”
  3. Filtering Out The Positive: Students on social media may get 99 likes on a post and one negative comment.  Young people who filter out the positive will totally ignore all positive encouragement or success and fixate solely on negative feedback or perceived failure.  Youth Leaders and Parents should remind students it is impossible to be perfect or universally liked all of the time, and that our value and confidence can only be based on what God says of us. When processing with a student who filters out the positive, challenge them to write down or speak out loud the positive feedback they have received.  Ask them if there is anything that they can learn from a negative comment. Encourage them by pointing to examples of many people who overcame criticism to accomplish great things.
  4. Mind-Reading: The brain has a way of creating narratives out of random facts and occurrences. Without clear communication, students may begin to assume they know what's going on in someone else's mind, often from a negative perspective.  If a student’s friend doesn’t immediately return a text, like a post or send an invite, it is very common for him to begin to assume that somehow his friend has turned against him.  It is important for youth leaders and parents to encourage students to communicate well and to seek understanding when they begin to assume the worst about what someone thinks of them.
  5. Catastrophizing: “If I don’t get into this college, my life is over…”. While all students are prone to hyperbole, when a young person begins to speak in catastrophic terms, it is necessary to address this thinking error.  Asking students to consider potential outcomes and solutions to their “end of the world” prognostications can be a helpful tool for recalibrating their thinking to a more reasonable perspective.
  6. Emotional Reasoning: If a student today “feels alone” than they may easily conclude that they “are alone.” “How do you reach a generation that listens with its eyes and thinks with its feelings?” Ravi Zacharias. Emotional reasoning is the intellectual currency of Generation Z and it is a contributing factor to the rise in depression and suicide.  Youth leaders and parents must be disciplined to teach students to think rationally, intellectually and reasonably in contrast to thinking with their feelings.  This is an ongoing process, which requires deeper focus and attention.
  7. Labeling: When a teacher isn’t very nice, a student concludes, “he is a total jerk.”  Someone makes a racially insensitive comment and she becomes a “racist.” Students are quick to label and condemn others without second thought, until they become the one who is labeled.  Labeling can easily become a way of humiliating, ostracizing and dehumanizing another human being.  Students should be reminded of the power of words and labels and corrected when they begin attaching labels on others.  When receiving a label, students should be reminded that the only name that matters is the label of being a son or daughter of God.
  8. Fortune-telling:  “If I go on a diet, I'll probably just gain weight." These types of thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies if a student is not careful. When a student is predicting doom and gloom, remind her of all the other possible outcomes.  Ask her what it would look like if she accomplished her goals?  What would be some healthy steps she could take in order to get closer to those goals?

When addressing “thinking errors” in students, remember to use positive, solution-oriented guidance.  Avoid speaking in a way that makes a student feel dumb or ashamed for the way they have been thinking.  These cognitive distortions are normal and widely accepted, so they must be lovingly rooted out.  Take time to walk through specific scriptures that deal with developing a healthy thought life such as, Philippians 4:8, 2 Corinthians 10:5Romans 12:2James 1:5-6, and 2 Timothy 2:1-7.  Correcting thinking errors is an essential step in helping students to love life even when things may seem difficult.  If the thinking patterns are too deep to overcome without professional counseling, youth leaders or parents may want to investigate finding a counselor who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Other Posts in this Series: 

LOVE LIFE: Critical Care for Students and Care Givers in a Suicide Culture

LOVE LIFE: Suicide in Seattle - 16 Risk Factors

LOVE LIFE: Breaking the Code of Silence

LOVE LIFE: Engaging with Suicidal Students

LOVE LIFE: Coping by Cutting - Understanding and Engaging A Student Who Is Cutting

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