Five ways loneliness and isolation contribute to teen suicide and self-injury

Matthew and his parents entered my office and sat down on my couch. 

Matthew folded his arms and stared out my window. His parents both took a deep sigh as they looked at each other. Feeling the tension in the room, I said, “Thank you for coming in today. You mentioned on the phone that you were concerned about Matthew and the recently discovered self-injury. How can I be of help?” 

Matthew’s mom quickly spoke up: “This is so out of character for Matthew. We just want to make sure he’s OK, but we have no idea what to do.” 

A common conversation

Unfortunately, this has become an all-too-common conversation for my staff and me. The pandemic has forced us into isolation and, as a result, our teenagers are faced with new challenges, and we’ve seen, in turn, an increase in both suicidal ideation and self-injury. 

Let’s talk briefly about how loneliness and isolation can contribute to both. 

(PLEASE NOTE: Loneliness and isolation can be potential contributors to suicide and self-injury, but they are not direct causes. The desire to self-injure and the thoughts associated with suicide are much more complex. For further reading on this, read my free e-book Help! My Teen is Self-Injuring: A Crisis Manual for Parents at 

As I unpack in The Path out of Loneliness, loneliness is defined as “The state of being unseen or unnoticed relationally, mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. It can be driven by a lack of purpose or meaning, relationship, and/or identity and is marked by a deep sense of hopelessness.” 

5 ways loneliness and isolation contribute to suicide and self-injury 

1. Loneliness deteriorates your connection to others. 

We are designed and created for connection. Being in relational reciprocity allows us to develop a healthy symbiotic relationship with others. 

When thoughts of loneliness enter, the relational connection has the potential to sever and, as a result, we begin to feel isolated and alone. Isolation can then be a direct link to negative self-talk and thoughts. 

2. Loneliness can hijack our emotional regulation. 

If/when our relational connection is severed, the failure of our emotional regulatory system is close behind. Why? We need each other to regulate. 

Our brain does not fully function (neither emotionally nor cognitively) unless it is in a safe, trusting relationship with someone else. Therefore, when our relationships/connections are compromised, the regulatory functions of our emotions will be as well. 

3. Loneliness calls into question our identity. 

When connection is lost and our emotions are dysregulated, we begin to consciously or unconsciously question who or whose we are. Satan’s whisper—“You are worthless”—becomes a scream: “you are not loved!” 

We lose sight of the promises of God and get lost in the sea of isolation. 

4. Loneliness negates our purpose. 

When our identity is compromised, our purpose gets lost. 

Purpose flows out of identity. Purpose is what helps us get out of bed in the morning. Without it, a narrative of “Who cares?” develops. 

5. Loneliness misplaces hope. 

Hope is essential for life. Without hope all seems lost. Loneliness is forgetful and does not remember what hope is or where it was placed, and all feels lost in that moment. 

NOTE: When hope is lost, it is significantly important that you consult with a mental health professional. This is where suicide can be most prevalent. 

Action items that make a huge difference

“So how do we help Matthew regain some of these components in his life?” Matthew’s dad asked. 

“Good question!” I answered. “You will need to be purposeful and intentional in your relationship with Matthew.” 

Here are several action items that every parent can take: 

  1. Create opportunities for your child to be seen. That is, find opportunities to do things with your teen on their level. This will allow them to feel valued and seen for who they are and what interests them. Doing this for only 15 minutes a day can create a huge change. 
  2. Allow for conversations to happen with your child. A big reason teenagers feel lonely is that they don’t feel like they have anyone to talk to. Change this. Make yourself available to “talk” with your teen. I put talk in parenthesis because you shouldn’t talk at all (or at least minimally). You should be listening with curiosity. Ask good questions, but don’t give advice or try to fix your teenager. Otherwise, there’ll be less and less of a chance that they will come talk to you. 
  3. Find ways to speak truth over your child. Tell them who they are and whose they are. One simple way to do this is to pray or speak scripture over them. Do this when they are awake and also when they are asleep. Words matter. What we say to our teens will deeply impact their identity. 
  4. Dream with your child. It can be scary to think about the future. Many teens feel lost when it comes to their purpose. Help them explore the intersection of who/whose they are and what they were put on this earth to do.

This is not an extensive list, nor is it a prescription, but it is a start. Slow down, pay attention, lean in, and engage your teenager at their level. You won’t be disappointed.

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