by Kari J. Tanta, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, Children’s Therapy
September is suicide prevention month. Though a yearly event, suicide prevention month 2020 highlights a heightened need for all of us to take time to refresh our knowledge about suicide. In a year filled with COVID-19, racial inequalities and police violence, social isolation, and economic hardships, the incidence of suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and successful suicides is on the rise. This rise is particularly high in kids and teens who have lost so much this year.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the leading cause of death among school-age kids, teens and young adults from ages 10 to 24—and it’s increasing at a greater rate among girls. LGBTQ youth face even higher rates of suicide. Despite these alarming statistics, there is hope: suicide is preventable. As a kid, teen, parent, relative or friend, here is what you need to know about suicide, how to help, and where to go to support kids and teens who may be thinking about suicide.
Talking about suicide is hard, but important
- Kids as young as eight know what suicide is. When talking with young kids, focus on the facts and answer their questions. You can start the conversation simply by asking if they know what suicide is. You can explain that some people feel so upset that they think they don’t have any other options than to end their life; then explain that there are other options.
- Older kids, particularly in the course of the COVID pandemic, are glued to their devices and are exposed to heavy concepts, making it more important than ever to keep lines of communication open. Be aware that they’ve likely been exposed to suicide by peers or in the media. Make sure they know how important they are and that they can always talk to you.
- At all ages, be prepared in case your child asks if you or anyone in the family has ever felt depressed, thought about attempted or died by suicide. Family history of depression and suicidal thoughts is a risk factor and should not be taken lightly, though can be a scary concept to discuss with a child or teen.
Risk factors for suicide
- A family history of suicide
- Drug or alcohol use
- Access to firearms
- A serious or chronic medical illness
- Feeling depressed or helpless
- Deliberate self-injury (“cutting”)
- A history of trauma or abuse
- Prolonged stress
- A recent tragedy or loss (such as breaking up with a partner)
Suicide is preventable and resilency factors can help
The presence of resiliency factors can lessen potential risk factors that may lead to suicidal thoughts or attempts. Examples of resiliency factors that should be nurtured include:
- Family support and good communication.
- Peer support and close social networks
- School and community connectedness
- Cultural or religious beliefs
- Adaptive coping and problem-solving skills, including conflict-resolution
- Life satisfaction, positive self-esteem, sense of purpose
- Access to effective medical and mental health resources
What peers and friends can do to help
- Know the warning signs.
- Talk to your friends. Listen to their feelings. Make sure they know how important they are to you, but don’t believe you can keep them from hurting themselves on your own.
- Make no deals. Never keep secret a friend’s suicidal plans or thoughts.
- Tell an adult. Talk to your parent, your friend’s parent, your school’s psychologist or counselor—any trusted adult.
Warning signs to be looking for
Youth who are contemplating suicide often give warning signs if we know what to look for and if we actually look for them. Parents, teachers and friends are all in position to pick up on these signs and get help. These warning signs should never be kept secret.
- Social withdrawal from friends and family
- Talk about feeling depressed or trapped
- Extreme mood swings
- Sudden unexplained happiness
- Changes in sleeping or eating behavior
- Changes in appearance
- Lack of interest in things they used to love (activities, hobbies)
- Preoccupation with death
- Suicidal threats (“I want to die”, or “I wish I could go to sleep and not wake up”)
- Suicide notes, plans or social media posts
- Giving away personal things
What to do in a suicide-crisis
- Talk openly and honestly. Ask direct questions like: “Do you have a plan for how you would kill yourself?”
- Remove means such as guns, knives or stockpiled pills
- If there are multiple people around, have one person speak at a time
- Express support and concern
- Don’t argue, threaten or raise your voice
- Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong
- If you’re nervous, try not to fidget or pace
- Be patient
- Focus on your concern for their well-being and avoid being accusatory
- Reassure them that there is help and they will not feel like this forever
- Do not judge
- Provide constant supervision. Do not leave the youth alone
- Get help
If you or someone you know is suicidal, get help immediately via 911, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK or the Crisis Text Line (text “HOME” to 741741).
Where to go for help outside of emergency situations
At Valley Medical Center, we are enhancing our services for children and teens with suicidal thoughts, including screening for risk factors and supports for children in our Emergency Department and on our inpatient hospital units. We are also expanding our outpatient resources and collaborations.
Children’s Therapy is excited about our recent collaboration with the inpatient team at Valley Medical Center in this area as well. Occupational therapists from Children’s Therapy are now evaluating and providing treatment for pediatric patients with mental health needs, specifically suicide thoughts, during their inpatient stay. Occupational therapists are targeting patients’ participation in activities of daily living including hygiene and dressing routines, use of calming sensory strategies, as well as participation in leisure activities for their enjoyment. We hope to continue to enrich our collaboration with the inpatient team and provide a valuable service our patients find joy in.
Additionally, the Valley Medical Center Children’s Therapy team is working on further expanding our current relationship with Renton Area Youth Services/Childhaven for outpatient mental health support, and enhancing the resources we are able to offer children and families related to social and emotional health.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Association of School Psychologists, resources and tips for family and friends
Washington Department of Health, resources and prevention
Teen support from Crisis Connections
King County Government site, warning signs, feelings, support
The Trevor Project, support for LGBTQ youth
TransLifeline, peer support for transgender people, by transgender people
Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, stats, warning signs, youth, vulnerable groups