The vast majority of parents of suicidal children are unaware of their child’s suicidal behavior.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. among youths age 5-25, resulting in 7,625 deaths in 2017.
The recent news on suicides across the Valley have many crying out for help. Many parents may not feel the schools are doing enough. Schools are stepping up their games and offering more, but still struggling to get a significant turnout for most parent-related events. Parents are outright struggling with what to do with their kids. Who is to blame? Is anyone?
The truth be told, it is equally as important for school staff and parents to be aware of possible and potential signs of suicide in any child. It is not entirely the job of a parent. It is not entirely the job of the school. At the end of the day, “It takes a village.”
Here are some important points to be aware of:
Do not be afraid to talk with your children about suicide.
Know the risk factors and warning signs of suicide.
Respond immediately if your child is showing warning signs.
Reach out to the school for resources.
Make all firearms and prescription drugs in the home inaccessible to children.
First and foremost is that tough conversation with your kids. Many believe that if they talk to their kids about suicide it will cause them to want to attempt suicide or will put ideas in their head. This is not true.
In speaking to them, they also will likely open up to you if they have been feeling suicidal or may have a suicidal friend. Talking about it helps remove the stigma often associated with mental health. Even if your child is not suicidal, they may have been afraid to tell you they were feeling anxious or depressed, as they thought you would be upset with them.
By having this conversation, you are telling them that it is OK to not be OK. You are assuring them that you do not associate a stigma with mental health and this is important to you too.
Many schools are/have been providing training to all incoming freshman students with regards to suicide. These trainings are also typically offered to parents in an evening session, so they too can learn the signs and what to look for.
Most schools are now offering Teen Lifeline contact information printed on the back of all student ID cards. Before having that conversation about suicide, make sure you know the risk factors and warning signs of suicide. Depression, substance abuse, previous attempts, family history of suicide and youth who are dealing with loss or problems with the law, or who have easy access to lethal means, like guns, are most at risk of suicide and suicide attempts.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are at an increased risk for suicide if struggling with sexual orientation, experiencing peer rejection or bullying, or anticipating or experiencing familial rejection.
Warning signs can include changes in sleep and appetite, dramatic mood changes, acting out; violent behavior, a general sense of helplessness/hopelessness, increased risky behavior (such as drinking, using drugs and gunplay), sudden changes in personality and in friends, changes in physical habits and appearance (either negative or positive), inability to concentrate on routine activities, changes in classroom behavior and failing grades.
If it is new for your child, it may be a red flag. Some kids will outright say “I am going to kill myself”, “No one would miss me anyway” or “I just want to die.”
In other urgent, serious situations, kids may seek out pills, weapons, rope or other means to complete suicide. Some may talk, write or draw pictures associated with suicide. Kids often have, what is referred to as a precipitating event, occur right before they attempt suicide.
These events can include the breakup of a relationship, family problems, feeling like they do not belong anywhere, sexual, physical or mental abuse, drug or alcohol addiction, mental Illness (more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder,) trouble with authority, legal issues, the death of a loved one, school or work problems or any problem that seems hopeless.
If you notice any of these signs in your child, please take them seriously! Even if you do not think they are capable of suiciding, seek help immediately but calling 911, the Maricopa County Crisis 602- 222-9444, or Teen Lifeline at 602–248-8336.
Reach out to the school for resources. Many schools in Arizona have added school-based social workers, who are there as a contact for you and your kids.
School social workers typically have an abundance of resources for families who are seeking help. Additionally, they are there to support you and your child during a transition back to school, should they need to be hospitalized.
Help your children build or recognize their protective factors. These include good family relationships and support from family, strong problem-solving skills, physical activity or participation in sports, access to mental healthcare, social interaction (e.g., through clubs, activities religious organizations) and to build positive relationships with teachers and other adults.
As much as most parents want to be their child’s “go to adult,” typically we aren’t. Encourage your child to identify an adult they are comfortable talking to, to be their go to person.
What else can we do? Make all firearms and prescription drugs in the home inaccessible to children. You can pick up magnetic locks at most hardware stores for around $15 for a set of six. These locks secure your medications, preventing them from being easily accessible to any children (including your kid’s friends). Firearms should be kept locked in a safe.
Talk to your kids often about important topics like drugs, alcohol and suicide. Create a codeword they can text/say to you when they are struggling. We use “miserable” as the code word in our home. This allows our children to let us know they are struggling emotionally, may be considering self-harm or suicide or they just do not know how to start the conversation.
Step back a little if you find you are often hovering over your child. Stop hounding them about their grades and homework and let them accept the natural consequences of their own actions. It’s OK to let our kids fail every so often (and it’s actually healthy).
No one is going to be there to fix things for them when they are on their own, so now is a good time to stop fixing things for them and let them learn from their own mistakes. Validate your child’s feelings.
Even if you do not understand or have experience feeling the way that they do, it is important to remind them that their feelings do matter. Keep the crisis line number and Teen Lifeline number on the fridge. This allows your child(ren) to know that it is acceptable in your home to call for help should they need it.
-The author is an East Valley mom and social worker.