September is Suicide Awareness Month. This month I have put together information about suicide prevention and awareness for educators and parents. The National Institutes of Health recently held an online videocast called “Suicide in the U.S.: Finding Pathways to Prevention.” Experts presented information and answered questions on the topic of suicide. I have summarized some of the highlights from the panel, along with recommendations from suicide prevention agencies.
There are myths surrounding suicide that should be dispelled. For example, sometimes it can be scary to talk about suicide because we fear that it will put the idea into someone’s head. Most experts agree, however, that this is not the case. If someone is showing warning signs of suicide, it is OK to ask something like, “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” This may let a child know that you are concerned and that you are a person with whom they can talk. Media coverage of suicide, however, is different. Deaths by suicide do need to be reported with care. If a suicide is covered extensively or if it is glamorized, it can increase risk of suicide for some people.
Another myth concerns the cause of suicide. The panelists agreed that suicide is very complicated and often is not caused by one event, such as the breakup of a relationship or a fight with a parent. It is much more complex than just being able to point to one reason. There may be a combination of stressful life events interacting with mental illness (e.g. chemical imbalance, depression). Substance abuse can also play a role.
Young kids can think about and die from suicide. This is rare younger than 10, but the occurrences do spike as kids get older. The following are warning signs of suicide that should be followed up on if a child is exhibiting them:
n Talking about wanting to die: Suicide notes and/or making threats such as, “I want to die” or “Everyone would be better off without me.”
n Previous suicide attempt or efforts to harm self: A child who has attempted suicide needs continued support and therapy. Also watch for signs of purposeful cutting or scratching on the child’s body.
n Depression: A child feeling helpless or hopeless. This can also be seen in risk-taking behaviors such as aggression or using drugs and alcohol.
n Any sudden changes: A child may suddenly withdraw from friends and activities that were once enjoyed. Changes in appetite or sleep patterns. Lack of interest in appearance.
n Difficulty concentrating and mood changes: Not being able to focus on school work or household chores. Trouble following and contributing to conversations.
n Planning and access: The more detailed the plans, the more at risk a child is. A plan in combination with access to weapons, pills, etc. can be very dangerous.
Steps that can be taken for suicide prevention include:
n Normalize talking about mental health. Be willing to talk about suicide. If you see signs, you can ask if the person is thinking about suicide. Asking does not hurt and can open the door for the person to seek help.
n Build relationships. Provide a welcoming environment that encourages children to seek help from an adult when needed. Talking through feelings with an adult can help. Having a trusted adult in a child’s life can make a valuable difference.
n Don’t wait for a tragedy. School systems should provide workshops or training sessions for staff that include learning warning signs for suicide. If you are an educator or parent and would like more information, the school psychologist should be a great resource.
The National Suicide Hotline number is (800) 273-TALK. They are able to provide information to people who are experiencing emotional distress and may be thinking about suicide. Information about suicide can also be obtained from www.sprc.org.
Sara Buhl, of Auburn, is a certified school psychologist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org