Tag suicide

What Do I Say To My Teen When Another Teen Has Committed Suicide?

Few tragedies make us wonder more about the order of our lives than when a teenager or young adult commits suicide. Sadly, this is too common as suicide is the third leading cause of death among those aged 15-24. Moreover, a recent national survey by the Center for Disease Control indicated that 16% of U.S. high school students report that they think seriously about suicide and half of those state that they have made an attempt.

As we consider this topic we also all do well to keep in mind that there is a risk of contagion whenever a teen commits suicide (e.g., a risk of another teen committing suicide). I’ve never known an adult who intended to glorify suicide. But that can be exactly what happens when a teen suicide is sensationalized or overly memorialized.

With those comments in mind, here are a few tips for approaching your teen about this topic:

• Don’t force a conversation about the suicide, but make it clear you’re interested in discussing your teen’s thoughts and feelings about it if he or she is open to that.

• Let your teen take the lead in the discussion. Try to avoid sharing your perspective until your teen’s thoughts and feelings appear to have been fully vetted. (In my experience this is hard for many of we parents to do).

• Offer empathy in response to whatever your teen says. Empathy to a teen is like a warming sun to a spring tulip: it facilitates more opening up.

Some things to consider offering once it is your turn:

• Let your teen know (or affirm the point if your teen has already made it) that suicide constitutes the worst possible choice a person can make. There is nothing about suicide that is worthy of glory, reinforcement, romanticizing or undue attention. It is a tragic and terrible behavior engaged in by people who are experiencing overwhelming pain and/or confusion.

• Ask your teen if he or she has ever thought about hurting himself or herself. (It’s a myth that asking this question, by itself, will promote or worsen suicidal thinking or behavior.) If he or she states that he or she is thinking about committing suicide arrange for an immediate evaluation by a qualified mental health professional (you can call the emergency services unit of your local community mental health center or take your teen to your local emergency room).

• Consider asking your teen what he or she thinks it would be like for you if he or she ever committed suicide. Then, either agree with what he or she has said or share more. This would also be a good time to reaffirm your deep love for your teen and the specific things that your teen says or does that you value.

• If your child knew the teen who committed suicide let him or her know that a grieving response is normal and expected. The balance is to give those thoughts and feelings the time and space they need while also trying to live life as normally as possible.

• If your child knew the teen who committed suicide stress that there is no way to know the causes of that particular teen’s suicide. Very little insight can usually be gleaned from the circumstances of the teen’s life (e.g., the degree of academic success, how much cohesion appears to be in the family, etc.). As a psychotherapist my clients usually let me in to very private and hidden areas of their lives; however, even I do not often know every important factor that causes them to behave in a particular way.

• Let your teen know that you will arrange for him or her to speak privately with a qualified mental health professional about these issues if he or she would like that.

There are many preventative strategies Here I will share three (I am more thorough about this in my parenting book):

√ Spend at least one hour a week doing special time with your teen. A regular line of communication makes it more likely you’ll be in the loop if your teen’s mood darkens. Click here for a download on how to do this weekly exercise.

√ Do all that you can to make sure that your teen has identified his or her competencies and is manifesting them in the world.

√ Try to ensure that your teen is sleeping at least 8.5-9.5 hours a night, is eating a balanced diet that limits processed carbohydrates and sweats and breathes hard an hour 5-7 days a week.

In closing, if your teen is showing signs of mental health disturbance, please err on the side of caution and arrange for a qualified mental health professional to do an evaluation, even if your teen is opposed to the idea. For a referral, click here.

Signs that a Kid Needs Mental Health Services.

About 14-22% of children in the United States suffer from a diagnosable psychological disorder. Add 20% to that number if you include youth who suffer at sub clinical levels. However, only about 20% of these children get effective care. And, even when they get it they’ve often had to suffer for years first. This occurs even though the research on the effectiveness of child psychotherapies is very positive. What would we conclude about our culture if this were true of our childrens’ dental health instead of their mental health?

I’m writing this blog entry to try to review key indicators of when a child might benefit from mental health services. There are four primary areas of functioning that one can consider: relationships with adults, relationships with peers, academics and mood.

Relationships with adults: The key issue is whether the youth gets along reasonably well with adults. Of course this includes parents/parent-figures and teachers. But it also includes coaches, extended family, bosses, etc. If the youth is frequently in conflict or frequently avoidant or detached from any significant type of relationship with adults, an evaluation may be warranted.

Relationships with peers: Kids need to be able to form friendships, and get along effectively, with other kids who are doing well. For example, if a teen’s close friendships are primarily with those who often get into trouble, abuse substances, or are significantly symptomatic, a significant problem may be present. Likewise, if a child or teen is avoidant, aggressive, controlling or otherwise routinely rejected or ignored by most other youth, this is of concern.

Academics: This is one of the trickier areas to describe tightly. The central issue here is not grades, though grades consistently falling in the C and lower range would generally indicate that a problem exists (assuming that the teaching and curriculum are appropriate). The central issue here is the youth applying herself or himself when she or he does not feel like it.  Developing this psychological muscle (i.e., task persistence when internal motivation is required) is one of the most important developmental tasks of childhood. So if a child is not applying herself or himself, or experiencing significant turmoil or failure in academic pursuits, an evaluation is likely warranted.

Mood: The key issue is whether or not the youth is content. Happiness is great. Contentment is the bar however. If the child is consistently sad, angry or anxious for a significant portion of his or her waking day, this is signaling a need for professional attention. It is often the case that a parent may be confused regarding what a child or teen is thinking or feeling. Thus, problems with sleep, appetite, concentration, connectedness with the world or physical activity can be signs of a problem. (There may also be absences of experiences of joy, but more for kids with depressive disorders than anxiety disorders. )

As I write this blog, there are 42 ways that youth can be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. So, this is hardly a comprehensive post. However, if a child is getting along well with others, is doing well in school and seems content, that child may be fine. The only significant area I’ve left out is experiencing success in one or more extracurricular pursuits. While a lack of positive experiences in the latter area is not, by itself, necessarily indicative of a problem, a child who lacks for such experiences may be more vulnerable to attacks on self-esteem.

I hope you will share this blog post with those who could use it. If you would like to read about common myths about mental health services, click here. For ideas on how to afford care click here. And, finally, to find a lean-mean-healing machine in your neck of the woods, click here.

Resources for Suicide Prevention

As this month is suicide prevention month, I am guest blogging at the American Psychological Association’s Blog http://www.yourmindyourbody.com. My post regards suicide prevention in youth. Click here to read it.

I also did a live radio interview, on the same topic, for the Harrisburg, PA PBS radio station. To listen to it, click here.

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