No simple answer to suicide among kids

Suicide has been too familiar of a topic of late. My son’s good friend from middle school committed suicide last month, followed by the deaths of two local 11-year olds. Like everyone who faces such news, I grapple with how immensely tragic it is and how impossible it is to answer the resounding question of WHY? My heart breaks and I think, if only. If only his friend could’ve seen beyond the present and known brighter days lay ahead, that this too, shall pass. That there was another solution, if only he hadn’t been so blindfolded by his own depression. There is no simple way to protect against suicide. What leads up to suicide is multi-faceted and often complicated. It’s not just a negative social media post from an uncaring classmate. It’s not solely a break up with a girlfriend or a fight with a parent. Things add up. We do know there are elements that increase the chance of suicide. There are also known ways to help prevent it. Maybe, as parents, if we can build a shelter around our kids with what we do know, it just might be strong enough to withstand a possible storm and keep them safe.

Watch teens with suicide-prone personality traits closely

I asked my high school son what he thought about bullying and suicide and if the two were linked and what, if anything, could protect against suicide. After some time, he came to the conclusion that bullying couldn’t cause suicide, but it could be a tipping point. That kids who get down are vulnerable. Without confidence, they lose perspective and if negative things keep happening they might see no way out and commit suicide. He still has a hard time believing his friend has died, but he does understand that he felt very stuck and didn’t see any way out.

Depression can lead to suicide, so watch for signs of depression, like isolating from friends and family, a loss of interest in things they normally enjoy, a drop in grades or activities, long-term sadness or anger, irritability, tearfulness, and feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness. 

Get help, if you see these signs. Nine out of ten teens who commit suicide have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, with more than half suffering from depression or a mood disorder. A scientific study in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience found that young people who complete suicide had higher levels of impulsivity. The study also noted that in general, characteristics such as introverted, negative, dependent, neurotic, hostile and antisocial were also common among suicidal individuals. 

Listen to what your teen is saying. If you hear things like, “I wish I could sleep forever,” or “Nothing matters,” take these as serious red flags. Other signs of suicide include talking about death, about feeling trapped and about being a burden. Risky behaviors such as driving too fast or increasing drug and alcohol use are also signs. Teens who are planning suicide can suddenly become happier and may set things in order by giving away items, closing social media sites and more. 

If your teen is showing any of these signs, stay tuned in with them. Check in often, make yourself available. Also, know that it’s okay to ask if they are feeling depressed or suicidal. It only shows you care. Try not to act shocked if your child admits they have suicidal thoughts. Ask them to tell you more, stay calm as best you can and seek outside help.  

Foster pro-social traits and characteristics of resiliency

Kids who feel socially connected and supported are less likely to commit suicide. From an early age, promote traits such as kindness, tolerance, respect and empathy in your child. A good place to start is to learn the character traits that are taught at your child’s school.

“Most schools have character programs. At Dunn Elementary, we use the same words and actions not just with kids but also with our staff and parents so we have a common language to develop the IB profile traits (caring, empathy, balanced, integrity, risk taking, etc.). We see these as life skills that we are teaching our kids. When parents support those traits at home it lets kids know it’s not just about school, it’s about life,” says Deborah Ellis, Principal of Dunn Elementary.

Talk, ask and especially listen to your kids

Another study found that in homes where kids committed suicide there was some disconnection between child and parent. Make it a habit to sit down on your teen’s bed at night or hang out with her after school. Be available and observant. If she seems sad, say, “You seem down. Is there anything you want to talk about?” Send the message that you are always there to listen by being there when she wants to talk, and dropping what you are doing to stop and listen. 

“As parents we can immediately go into lecture mode or jump in and try to fix things without really hearing what our kids have to say. Even if our intent is positive, giving advice or solutions can shut down a conversation. We need to be good listeners,” says Ellis.

If your child has a friend who seems especially down, advise him to stay connected by texting, talking, calling, stopping to say hello and asking how they are, complimenting them, telling them he cares and inviting them out. Increasing hope is vital. If your teen is depressed, give him something to look forward to, find times to laugh, relax and have fun. If depression lasts for more than 3 weeks, get an evaluation.

Stay in touch with computer and social media use

Is Internet use and social media increasing suicide among teens? Many people are curious of the role bullying and cyberbullying play in suicide. A recent scientific survey of 2000 middle schoolers found that kids who had been victims of cyberbullying were twice as likely to attempt suicide than their counterparts. 

Did you know there are websites that actually advise people on how to commit suicide? It’s frightening to consider, but true. The same researchers found over 100 pro-suicide sights available on the Internet. Be aware of this as you consider your child’s computer use. 

As parents, suicide is something we don’t even want to consider, but it happens. Staying aware, available and tuned in to our teens is the best protection we can offer.

Is your teen being cyberbullied?

If your teen comes to you about bullying on social media, don’t overreact. Most parents do, which sends the message to kids to keep it quiet next time. At the same time, take it seriously. Don’t brush it off as just words. Here’s what you can do:

  • Advise your teen to disengage with the bully—tell her not to respond to messages, have her block the person on social media sites and on her cellphone
  • If it happens continually on one social media site, inform the site manager who might then disable the offender’s account
  • If these actions fail to change things, have your teen cancel her profiles and get her a new cell phone number
  • If the cyberbullying is ongoing and involves another teen at school, inform the school of what’s going on
  • If possible, call the bully’s parents to make them aware of the situation
  • If it’s highly threatening, print out interactions and take it to the police