Communication Key to Stemming Rise in Childhood Suicide 

Suicide deaths in young people have reached a sobering new statistic. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for youth beginning at age 10. That’s younger than it’s ever been. And the age is creeping downward. Suicides among teen girls 10-14 tripled in the last 10 years. Suicide rates among Black youths are rising exponentially. 

The good news is that most suicides are preventable. Even one trusted adult can make a difference in a child’s life, and the decision to end it. How can we be that adult? How can parents and other adults engender an environment of positive mental and emotional well-being? How do we open the channels of communication and create a culture that values mental health and validates people’s feelings?

These questions were explored by Lauren Biever of Nationwide Children’s Hospital’ Suicide Prevention Center in a recent webinar sponsored by the ROX Institute. Biever sounded a call to action to stem the rise in suicide among young people. 

Child Suicide Expert: ‘Ask the Hard Questions’

“One of the best things we can do to prevent suicide is to have people talking about it,” Biever said. “We just need to talk to our kids and ask the hard questions.”

The hardest question of all may be: “are you thinking of killing yourself?” But that is exactly the question parents should be asking, according to Biever and other suicide prevention experts. Contrary to popular belief, they say asking the question directly does not increase the risk for suicide. Multiple studies have confirmed this.

“The best thing we do is actually ask directly,” Biever said. “It offers a great gift. It shows you care and are willing to talk about it. It let’s them know it’s not something to shy away from.” 

Warning Signs and Risk Factors for Youth Suicide

Nearly 90 percent of youth who attempt suicide give clues or warning signs in advance. Yet most parents miss them. Youth who talk about killing themselves are more likely to attempt. “Always take kids seriously,” Biever said. “Whenever any kid or anybody says something about suicide, we need to take it seriously, and figure out what to do to get them some help.”

The top three risk factors for suicide in youth are depression, drug or alcohol use, and previous suicide attempts. Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have one or more underlying mental health issues. The combination of depression with drug or alcohol use is particularly lethal. Biever said “drinking while down” increases the risk of suicide by 75 percent. Specific psychological, biological, and environmental factors contribute to greater risk. For example, a history of sexual abuse is highly correlated with suicide attempts. Gender is a multifaceted risk factor, with girls more like to attempt suicide but boys more likely to die by suicide. LGBTQ+ youth are at least four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts. 

The Role of a Trusted Adult in Preventing Suicide

Studies show that the presence of even one trusted adult in a child’s life can be the lifeline needed. What does it take to be that trusted adult? Biever outlined several key elements.

Listen. Take time to connect with kids, to really listen. Give the gift of your presence, your undivided attention.

Resist the “righting” reflex – the desire to set them straight. This may be challenging for a parent. “Fake it till you make it,” Biever says.

Have curiosity. Ask another question. Make it open-ended and non-judgmental. “Please tell me more.”

Validate their feelings. That doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with them, but it shows that they are being heard.

Broaden their network of support. Ask who else can support them that they can trust. Accept that, as a parent, you may not be their first go-to for talking about some things. Encourage them to cultivate relationships with other people they can confide in.

Be an advocate. Educate yourself about youth mental health and suicide. Put suicide hotline numbers in your kid’s phone. Be prepared with a safety plan, and don’t leave your child alone if they say they’re thinking about killing themselves.

Learn More and Find Resources

Join the ROX Institute’s next webinar in partnership with Nationwide Children’s Hospital — Suicide Prevention for Youth of Color — which will be presented by Arin Wade, LPC, NCC, on September 29 at 6:30 p.m.

Find Suicide Prevention Resources for parents and families at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, including these articles:

Vermont Care Partners hosts a statewide network of Mental Health First Aid classes for adults, youth and teens. Find out more here.

The Center for Health and Learning, which coordinates the Vermont Suicide Prevention Symposium and the UMatters suicide prevention program, among other initiatives.

The Vermont Department of Mental Health offers suicide prevention resources and information.

Check out this YouTube video from the Mayo Clinic featuring kids talking about what they need from adults around mental health and suicide.

Read What To Do if You’re Worried About Suicide: A parent’s guide to helping a child in distress, from the Child Mind Institute.

If you are worried about your child, also see the Symptom Checker from the Child Mind Institute, which can help identify signs of psychiatric or learning disorders and guide you to next steps.

For Kids: Stand Up to Stress! is a coloring and activity book for kids ages 8-12, from the National Institute for Mental Health. This free, printable coloring and activity book teaches children about stress and anxiety and offers tips for coping in a healthy way.

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