By Chris Croll
The month of September is national youth suicide prevention month. September also happens to be childhood cancer awareness month. What youth suicide and childhood cancer have in common is that they can strike any family, in any community, of any religion, race, economic status, or ethnicity. But while childhood cancer is usually not preventable, youth suicide is preventable. But to keep our kids safe, we, the adults in our community, must band together to create a culture that fostered acceptance, inclusion, and connection for all.
We need school leaders, medical professionals, coaches, counselors, elected officials and others in positions of influence to address the core issues that are causing our kids to feel isolated, alone and ‘not good enough.’ Many survivors of suicide attempts say they felt emotionally disconnected from everyone around them, even kids who came from loving homes with involved parents. It’s obvious that the issues are societal and well outside the influence of parents. We have to all work together to create stronger connections for kids so self-harm is never viewed as a solution to their problems.
Youth suicide is on the rise everywhere. The CDC reports that suicide in people ages 10-24 has increased a staggering 60% between the years 2007 and 2018 (the last year complete data was available). This now makes suicide the second leading cause of death among young people in the US. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse. The rate of emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts was 2.4 times higher in the spring of 2020 than it was a year earlier. This jump in cases was largely driven by a 51% increase in suicide attempts by girls ages 12-17. Teen girls have been hit particularly hard by the social isolation brought on by the pandemic.
One thing we can all do right away is to change the way we talk about suicide. It is no longer appropriate to use the phrase “committed suicide,” as that frames the death as a criminal act rather than a complex mental health issue. “Completed suicide” or “died by suicide” are the right terms to use. Destigmatizing mental health challenges helps people feel more comfortable asking for help when they need it.
It’s important that we talk to kids openly about how they are feeling. Adults sometimes worry that talking about suicide will, “put ideas in kids’ heads.” Research shows the opposite; talking about suicide with kids reduces their likelihood to engage in suicidal behavior. The data also show that by the age of eight, most kids are already aware of the concept of self-harm. Suicide hotlines report that every year a larger percentage of their calls come from children ages 10-14. It is never too early to check in with tweens and teens to ask them if they have ever had thoughts of hurting themselves. This not only normalizes talking about suicidal thoughts, which will encourage kids to openly communicate if they ever do get to a dark place one day, but the conversation itself may uncover hidden issues the child is experiencing right now.
Parents might consider scheduling appointments a few times a year for their children to get to know a qualified therapist, long before a crisis ever hits. This way, children can build a relationship with a trusted professional which can save valuable time later if the child is ever in acute distress. Think of this investment as ‘mental health insurance.’ Hopefully you never need it, but if you do, it’s there.
Teachers, counselors, parents, and other adults who work with teens can help them program the National Suicide Hotline phone number (800-273-8255) into their mobile phones. These 24/7 anonymous call centers are available not only for individuals in crisis themselves but to advise young people on what to do if a friend is having suicidal thoughts.
There are many free resources available in our community that focus on youth suicide prevention. Ryan Bartel Foundation offers programs for teens and tweens including workshops and meetups that use evidence-led practices to help kids build resilience and develop social connections. Other nonprofits like Friends of Loudoun Mental Health, A Place to Be, The Trevor Project and Suicide Prevention Alliance of Northern Virginia offer various other supports for parents, educators, and young people.
Youth suicide is preventable if we, the adults in the community, open a dialogue about mental health with children and we work together to create environments in our homes, schools and neighborhoods that fosters acceptance, inclusion, and connection for all.
Chris Croll is a writer, empathy activist and communications consultant. She is a member of the board of directors for the Ryan Bartel Foundation and she is a 2021 Loudoun 100 honoree.