The lack of early intervention and continuity of mental health care for our youth in Virginia is tragic. Our state ranks at 47 for treatment of childhood major depression–the leading risk factor for suicide. That means 7 out of 10 kids most at risk for dropping out of school, ending up in prison or dying by suicide don’t get the help they need.
My family lived that statistic. My son died from it. After years of struggle with depression and addiction, the funniest and most popular kid in school killed himself–my 20-year-old son Charles.
Mental illness is treatable. Suicide is preventable. Education and understanding it is our single best strategy for prevention. You can start here.
1. Suicidal thinking is a brain attack
This brain attack causes an irrational episode of emotional pain so great, that people who suffer from these thoughts think death is the only option. They feel worthless and that your life would be better without them.
That moment comes on with extreme intensity and can last from a few minutes to several hours. One study of people who attempted suicide found that 48% thought of suicide for fewer than 10 minutes before making the suicide attempt.
2. Talking about suicide does not “give someone the idea”
Although multiple studies show that acknowledging and talking about suicide reduces, rather than increases suicidal thoughts, parents, as well as physicians, still think talking about it plants the idea in someone’s head. This is simply not the case.
You need to talk about suicide with your kids and you should have a conversation by middle school. If you need a catalyst, most pre-teens and teens know about the show, “13 Reasons Why.” Ask them what they think of the show. (Here is a guide on how to address the conversation.) If you have suffered a loss by suicide of a friend or someone in the family, there is no age limit. See this evidence-based, age-appropriate guide to talking to a child about suicide loss.
3. Suicide is the #2 cause of death for 10-34-year-olds in the US
The number of children and adolescents admitted to children’s hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled during the last decade. This study included 59,631 kids admitted to U.S. hospitals between 2007 and 2015. Slightly over half were 15 -17 years old, nearly 37% were 12-14 and 13% were children ages 5 -11. The youngest child to die by suicide was 5 years old.
For our vulnerable youth population with developing brains, the pressure at school, mental illness, overexposure to social media, the availability of prescription and illicit drugs, lack of limitations on digital devices by parents, can lead to a child who is at higher risk of suicide. Our instinct is to protect our kids from failure. However, this often cheats our kids out of the opportunity to develop coping skills that build resilience.
4. Suicide is not a selfish act
It is an act of despair and desperation to end intense emotional (and sometimes physical) pain. Those experiencing suicidal thoughts think they are a burden. That indicates irrational feelings of low self-worth. Not selfishness.
5. Ninety percent of those who die by suicide suffer from a mental illness.
Either diagnosed or undiagnosed, depression is the number one cause of death by suicide because it’s the most common mental illness. Bipolar disorder and eating disorders have higher percentages of completed suicides but are less common mental illnesses. Not all who suffer from depression suffer suicidal thoughts. And not all that suffer suicidal thoughts suffer from depression.
6. Those who die by suicide often do not want to die
Due to feelings of fear and shame as well as being in an irrational state of mind, people suffering thoughts of suicide do not always say the obvious. Often, they offer “invitations” such as: “I feel so worthless,” “I just can’t do this anymore,” “I wish I were dead.” Your response? Stay calm and say, “I’m so sorry. Tell me more about that.” The question you want to ask is, “Are you thinking of suicide?”
Resist saying, “You have so much to live for.” Instead, listen and empathize with the person in pain. Your job is not to fix it but keep the person safe and get them to the next level of care which may be a relative, a mental health professional or the emergency room.
7. Bullying does not cause suicide
Bullying is a risk factor or a contributing factor to suicide. People kill themselves due to multiple reasons including a family history of depression or suicide, medical history, traumatic life events, family violence, child abuse and being part of the LGBTQ population. Many kids are bullied and do not attempt suicide.
8. People don’t “commit” suicide
Suicide is a public health issue, not a crime. People die by suicide, they don’t commit it. Studies have shown that the brains of those suffering suicidal thoughts differ in the areas of impulse control and stress response. That points to a disorder in the brain, not a moral weakness.
9. Suicide rates do not peak at the holidays for kids or anyone else
For 5-17 years olds, the month of the year that is the lowest for suicidal ideation is July. Those numbers creep back up right at the start of the school year. The highest rate of suicide attempts happens during the spring and fall.
10. You can stop someone from killing themselves
In a considerable number of suicide attempters, there is at least some readiness for interpersonal contact with a partner, family, or friends and 85% of those who die by suicide leave some kind of clue that indicates their intentions.
What I have realized is those who struggle with suicidal ideation, do want to tell. There is ample evidence that screening kids at their doctor’s office for suicide is an effective tool for preventing it. In Richmond, Pediatric & Adolescent Partners utilizes a 4-question screening tool called The ASQ that identifies kids at risk before thoughts become acts.
There are other ways to prevent suicide—such as securing firearms with a thumbprint safe, buying a carbon monoxide detector, disposing of prescription medications and locking up alcoholic beverages. Buying over-the-counter medications in blister packs help, too, because they take longer to open, allowing that moment of ideation to pass.
So many people tell me the suicide of their loved one, “came from out of nowhere.” While the signs are more obvious after than before a suicide due to 20/20 hindsight, you can arm yourself with knowledge. If you feel something is wrong with your kids, chances are it is. Don’t ignore it and think it will be better tomorrow. The conversation might be uncomfortable but it’s better than the alternative.