“We need to change the way we think about mental health and teen depression .. .and we can start in our homes by keeping an open and honest communication and letting our kids know that it’s okay to say that they’re not okay.”
That’s what Ann Morrison, Long Island director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told an audience of parents at a seminar at Shoreham-Wading River High School Nov. 30, to help identify warning signs and risk factors for suicide in teens, understand the role of treatment in reducing risk and open a dialogue with their children about the topic.
The school district was impacted by two separate incidents of suicide in October and November. Both were high school freshmen. The school’s administration has been doing all it can to raise awareness and education for both students and parents alike ever since.
The AFSP gives different versions of the seminar throughout the country. Morrison’s presentation spoke specifically to parents. Those in attendance said it was much needed.
“It’s important with all the things that have been going on here,” Thomas McClintock said. “I know they wanted to address it with the children, but it’s good for the parents too, because a lot of us are in the dark on this type of thing. It’s not something you expect or anticipate in your own child.”
Morrison explained suicide has become the second leading cause of death among youth between the ages 10 and 24 in the U.S. after accidental injuries and yet, she said, “we aren’t really talking about it.”
“That’s where a lot of the issue is,” Morrison said. “We need to be more comfortable talking about one of the leading causes of death and why this is happening and how we can prevent it. This isn’t meant to frighten anybody, but to let you know the scope of the problem.”
According to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor health risk behaviors that contribute to causes of death for teens, 17 percent of high school students reported having seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous year — 13.6 percent reported having made a plan for a suicide attempt in the previous year, and eight percent reported having attempted suicide one or more times in the last year.
“We need to be more comfortable talking about one of the leading causes of death and why this is happening and how we can prevent it. This isn’t meant to frighten anybody, but to let you know the scope of the problem.”
— Ann Morrison
Morrison said suicide is a mental health issue and marginally preventable.
The thought comes about when multiple factors come together, so it’s not related to just one cause, but underlying risk signals to look out for in teens are out-of-character bouts of depression, anxiety, aggression and agitation.
She said parents must act if they notice drastic changes in their children’s behavior, which might include withdrawal from activities they normally enjoy, isolation from friends or social media, changes in sleep patterns and appetite, unexplained rage, or giving away their prized possessions — something that commonly happens when someone is preparing to commit suicide.
“It can be very easy sometimes to mistake mental health symptoms for typical adolescent behaviors,” she said.
Also listen for statements like “I should go kill myself,” “I have no reason to live” and “everybody would be better off without me.”
Morrison stressed to the parents the key to helping prevent suicide among teens is to have a strong and supportive home, where it’s okay to reach out for help.
“You have to be a role model and let them know that in your home, it’s okay for open communication no matter what it is that they want to talk about,” she said. “We need to not be afraid to reach out and ask them if they’re okay. … Make sure you talk to them in private, [and] not at the dinner table, in front of siblings or handled very nonchalantly. Listen to their story, get them comfortable to talk to you, express care and concern. Don’t dismiss their feelings. What we think is a small problem to them might be a bigger problem in their mind.”
Debra Caputo, who works as a counselor at the Long Island Crisis Center, echoed the importance of listening. As someone who answers crisis calls on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, she said just simply listening to someone wrestling with mental health issues is helpful to them.
“When people call, we’re basically just listening and validating their feelings,” she said. “What they’re feeling is real. If we listen non-judgmentally and understand what they’re going through, it can make a world of difference. We want to reassure them they’re not alone and help is available.”
Morrison said that if there’s a true feeling that a child may be at risk or having suicidal thoughts, it’s okay to directly ask them if they are.
“It’s a scary question to ask or think about asking, but we know that when we ask, it opens that conversation,” Morrison said. “And should a child actually have those thoughts, in most cases, they’re going to feel comfortable telling you. Thank them for having the courage to talk to you and contact a mental health professional for an evaluation. Take it seriously. Don’t wait to act. Be calm. Listen to them.”
If you or your child is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The hotline is available 24 hours a day.
For more information about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and their services, visit afsp.org.
You can watch “More Than Sad,” a film presented by the AFSP that dramatizes four situations of high school depression, at www.afsp.org/our-work/education/more-than-sad/.