By Laura Walker, staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions
Youth suicide is on the rise. After 15 years of decline, rates took a steady increase at the turn of the 21st century. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 15,141 youth suicides (ages 5-18) in the U.S. between 1999 and 2009. Between 2010 and 2016, there were 11,939 youth suicides, an average increase of 31 percent in six years over rates of the previous decade. Let’s think about that. These statistics start with kids as young as five years old.
The CDC reports suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth ages 12-18. These tragedies leave many families, friends and loved ones asking, “why?” Youth interviewed after suicide attempts often report feelings of despair, emptiness, wanting revenge or needing an escape. When young people experience intense emotions related to difficult situations, such as breakups, a recent loss or abuse, they often seek out ways to regain a sense of control over their lives. This may come in the form of healthy coping skills like talking to a trusted adult or journaling to make sense of their feelings, or they may resort to unhealthy mechanisms such as self-harm or self-medicating. If a child takes an unhealthy path, he or she is at an increased risk of suicide.
Knowing what is happening in children’s lives and recognizing when to get help are the best ways to keep children safe. If you notice your child is struggling, having a conversation with your child’s pediatrician or primary care physician is a great first step. They can serve as a guide before a situation dangerously escalates, and they can help rule out chemical imbalances or other medical diagnoses that may contribute to changes in behavior. If you feel something is amiss, it is important to take action.
What if I know a child grappling with suicidal thoughts?
Many times, individuals who are considering suicide show clear signs of trouble. Signs can include: talking or writing about death; loss of interests; withdrawing from friends and family; changes in appearance or decline in hygiene; trying to access medications or weapons; giving away possessions; or showing intense anger or hopelessness followed by sudden calm. If you have suspicions about a child, talk to them openly and directly to determine the help they need.
When talking to someone about suicide, whether you are a parent or another trusted adult, you need to know how urgent the situation is. Here are a few things to consider:
Some youth may be embarrassed to admit they have thoughts about suicide. Under no circumstances should you promise to keep someone’s thoughts about suicide a secret. Explain that as a person who cares about the youth’s wellbeing, that this is not a secret you can keep. Assure them they should not feel ashamed or alone and thank them for being honest. Connect them with a counselor and offer to go with them for emotional support. If you are not the parent or guardian, encourage the youth to have an open conversation with their parents about how they are feeling. Continue to be there for them – your sustained support may be their greatest reinforcement.
Get real about suicide
Suicide is a hard topic to breach, but one that every parent should talk about with their child. In all likelihood, your child probably already knows about suicide either from popular teenage drama series like “13 Reasons Why,” popular YouTube videos, or any number of social media posts, movies, or maybe even real life experiences. Parents can’t hide children from the reality of suicide, but informing yourself about what children are seeing, and talking to them about what they’ve seen or heard can offer a powerful lifeline. Helping them to grasp the severity of suicide – no coming back, no opportunity for things to get better, no reward or satisfaction – will help to save lives.
Just because an imminent threat has passed doesn’t mean the danger is gone. The CDC estimates 90 percent of individuals who commit suicide were experiencing a mental health crisis at the time of death.
“Mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety, have periods of improvement and worsening,” said Dr. John Wilkaitis, Medical Director for Canopy Children’s Solutions. “Even though a child may seem okay, it is important to seek professional help to better understand and address the underlying cause of suicidal thoughts and feelings. Therapists can help youth develop a safety plan as well as aid them in developing positive coping skills to deal with intense emotions.”
Feeling alone is one of the most critical factors of suicide. Know that you are never truly alone; there are a number of resources available to those in crisis. Mississippi Department of Mental Health is the statewide provider for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. If someone is in imminent danger, go to your nearest emergency room immediately. If you find you need someone to talk to about suicidal thoughts or difficult situations, seek out a local mental health organization or contact area churches about free counseling ministries.
Canopy Children’s Solutions is Mississippi’s most comprehensive nonprofit provider of children’s behavioral health, educational and social service solutions. Canopy offers therapeutic counseling through its behavioral health clinics in Jackson, Hattiesburg and Gulfport, serving youth ages 5-21. For more information about services through Canopy Children’s Solutions, visit mycanopy.org or call 800-388-6247.