This article was originally published in the November 2018 edition of Nashville Parent Magazine.
The sobering reality that children may be walking around in pain they simply can’t handle calls all parents to action.
“Myra” gets on the school bus every day. Other kids tease, taunt and trip her. When she finally finds a seat, she sits alone. She is sad and lonely, every day. She contemplates ending her life. “Myra” is 10.
“Jesse,” 15, is the star athlete at school. Everyone has high hopes for him. Jesse seems to have it altogether, but he doesn’t. He’s depressed, overwhelmed and lost. When he attempts suicide, he survives.
“Kim” dreads going to school. She’s not a “popular girl.” “Kim” feels awkward and shy, yet she’s bright, loyal and kind. She doesn’t have anyone to share herself with because she doesn’t “fit in” and the “popular girls” shred her confidence. Angry, lonely and frustrated, she’s beginning to think her existence doesn’t matter. She contemplates suicide. “Kim” is 12.
“Joey” overhears his parents talking about his uncle who tried to kill himself. He wonders why his uncle did it and he thinks about it — especially when the other kids tease him and just won’t stop. “Joey” is 7.
These are actual examples, though names have been changed.
RISING RATES OF SUICIDE
The idea of childhood suicide terrifies parents, yet suicide rates among children and teens are rising. A study published in Pediatrics just this year cited suicidal ideation (SI) and suicide attempts (SAs) as having increased among U.S. children over the last 10 years.
“We have almost 21 years of working in this field, so we’ve seen the progression over the years and they’re right,” says Clark Flatt, president of The Jason Foundation, based in Hendersonville. “The suicide rates are not only the highest they’ve been, but they’re increasing more rapidly than at any time since we’ve been in this business.” The Jason Foundation is a nationally recognized leader in youth suicide awareness and prevention. Flatt started the organization after losing his son, Jason, to suicide in 1997.
“How many parents know that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people and across the nation, ages 10 – 24?” Flatt asks. “As of 2016, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 10- to 14-year-olds. We’ve been brought in on [cases] as young as 8 years old. It’s gone from not even on the charts at all to the second leading cause of death — more than doubling since 2006 — for that specific age group in our nation,” Flatt says.
KIDS ARE LONELY
Kids are under more stress today than ever with parents living in a culture of distraction. We are more isolated from what’s important and from those whom need our attention. The signs of a child at risk are not always clear, and distraction blocks our awareness of the emotional pain children may be in.
“There’s greater stress today educationally, socially and economically,” Flatt says. “There are more intense pressures at younger ages, and kids have fewer coping skills at younger ages. Parents have an opportunity to respond positively and supportively, but regretfully, too many times I don’t see that when we’re working with families. We don’t see the level of support that needs to be there,” he adds.
MEDIA NOT HELPFUL
At 15 years old, Bailey James faces pressures. A rising country music singer and a National Youth Advocate for The Jason Foundation, James lost her older brother, Zane, to suicide when he was 18.
“Media plays a big part,” James says. “They show so much that we shouldn’t see at a young age. And the technology we have; you feel lonely. You have more contact with social media platforms, but kids are lonely. Kids contact me all the time and say they’re lonely. They want to fit in, they want to feel comfortable, but there is so much bullying and triggering on social media. I was bullied for doing music. I was even bullied for my own brother’s death. Kids don’t know how to communicate with each other or anyone else,” James says.
James’ dad, Kevin Koehler, agrees and shares his thoughts about kids today.
“They won’t pick up the phone,” Koehler says. “They won’t talk to one another. They won’t go next door and talk to a friend, face to face. Everything is through text. I don’t know how to go backward and fix that, but it is definitely a leading issue,” he adds.
TAKE TALK SERIOUSLY
“There are major warning signs, or what we like to call signs of concern,” says Flatt. “Often, suicide warning signs are obvious, but a less obvious sign may be when somebody says, ‘I don’t make a difference,’ or, ‘If I was gone today, nobody would notice,’” Flatt says.
Outward expressions of thinking about how things would be if a person wasn’t here need to be taken seriously. These expressions are opportunities for parents and others who care to draw the person expressing this into communication and to talk more about what he’s feeling. Getting someone to talk more — especially about suicidal thoughts — is crucial.
“Kids who have positive relationships with multiple caring adults are usually more likely to talk about problems and feelings,” says Laurie Drummond, a school counselor in Nashville. That’s why it’s so important for adults to watch for warning signs in kids.
CLEAR WARNING SIGNS
“There are many reasons kids consider suicide,” Drummond says. “But many have told me their problems seem so big, they can’t see any way things can ever get better, so dying feels like their only option,” she adds. Drummond says kids don’t want to die as much as they just want to stop their pain.
“Four out of five young people will demonstrate clear warning signs before they attempt suicide,” says Flatt. “That means that 80 percent of the time, if we know what to look for and respond appropriately, we have an opportunity to stop a suicide attempt,” he says.
Seek professional help for any child who is in trouble.
“Parents don’t need to run around scared, but they do need to be aware of the mental health of their child,” Flatt says. “It may be an adolescent phase your child’s going through, but that’s where communication comes in: ask questions, ask questions, and ask more questions — and if you’re not satisfied with the answers, take action,” he adds.
A child’s suicide warning signs can go unnoticed because of a lack of awareness.
“There are people — whether they are parents or educators or anyone who works with young people — who don’t take action because they don’t see the threat,” Flatt says. “If you don’t understand that depression can be lethal — a real condition for a young person — then you don’t see the danger there,” he says.
Flatt says schools, churches and youth organizations need to work to improve the level of coping skills kids have.
STAY CALM, TAKE ACTION
No one wants to believe that a child can be in so much pain that he’d consider taking his own life. But parents have keen instincts and need to listen to them. You know if your child is depressed. You can see it on a kid who has changed. When you do, it’s time to calmly act. “When you hear the word ‘suicide’ or the phrase, ‘I think about killing myself,’ the key is to remain calm,” says Michelle Sobota, who works with at-risk kids ages 5 – 14 at Cottage Cove Urban Ministries in Nashville.
“They tell you because they trust you,” Sobota says. “It’s important to ask questions and to know that they may not be able to articulate what they are feeling. Take action. Check in. Most importantly, listen. Let the child know that he is loved and cared for no matter what he may be feeling or struggling with,” says Sobota.
Some parents falsely worry that having a conversation with a child about suicide will put the idea into the child’s mind. However, research consistently shows that more conversation is better.
“It’s a myth,” says Flatt. “If we talk to people about suicide and suicidal ideation and do it in a professional, upfront way, without being hysterical, it tells a person who may be struggling that it’s OK, and you want to help,” Flatt says.
No matter what, don’t be afraid to talk to your child. Prepare yourself to know what to do if you see signs of concern, and if you have a gut feeling, act on it.
“Don’t put your head in the sand if you think there’s a sign,” says Koehler. “Get to the bottom of it. Don’t ever stop talking to your kids. They need to know you’re there.”
Holly Abernathy is a local mom and freelance writer.