Over the past year, we have lost several local youths to suicide, one on the first day of school. The start of the school year can be a particularly vulnerable and stressful transition for teens, so it’s a good time to review suicide warning indicators and ways to respond.
"Research has shown that kids who attempt suicide are in intense emotional pain, and most just need someone to recognize and respond to that,” explains Debbi Halela, director of youth and family counseling services at YES. Halela also acknowledges that many youths take a long time to work through their grief following the loss of a classmate to suicide, and that the potential for copycat actions exists during that time.
According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program (www.yspp.org), an average of two youths between the ages of 10 and 24 kill themselves each week in Washington State. Responses to the 2010 Washington Healthy Youth Survey indicated that 18 percent of 10th graders (15,000 students) had seriously considered attempting suicide. More than 30 percent of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer or questioning) youths reported at least one suicide attempt in the past year.
Some of the classic suicide warning signs:
- Increased use and abuse of alcohol and drugs
- Giving away prized or valuable possessions
- Sudden changes in behavior, including increased risk taking, severe withdrawal and avoidance of activities that had been enjoyed in the past
- Altered eating and sleeping patterns
- Subtle or obvious verbal threats such as, “I wish I was dead” or “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone.”
- Drawing or writing about death on book covers, in journals, etc.
- Increased discouragement, depression, anxiety or anger.
Kids who exhibit suicidal behavior are asking for help. Kids who are thinking about suicide will often talk to their friends before they talk to their parents or even a school counselor. It’s important to encourage young people to tell a trusted adult if they suspect a friend is suicidal, preferably a school counselor or teacher. The important thing is to act.
If you suspect that a child, friend or loved one is suicidal, don’t be afraid to ask questions like “Are you thinking of suicide? Do you have a plan?”
If the threat is imminent — say you find a suicide note or other evidence — call 911 or get the child to the hospital for an assessment. If the threat isn’t immediate, closely monitor the child until you can notify the parents, school staff, or get him or her in to see a counselor or other mental health professional.
I know how distressing it is to discover that someone you care about is thinking about suicide. But trust me, finding out now beats finding out later.
Patti Skelton-McGougan is Executive Director of Youth Eastside Services. YES is a nonprofit organization and a leading provider of youth counseling and substance abuse services in the region. Since 1968, YES has been a lifeline for kids and families, offering treatment, education and prevention services to help youth become healthy, confident and self-reliant and families to become strong, supportive and loving. YES accepts insurance or Medicaid and offers a sliding scale with no one turned away due to inability to pay. For more information, visit YouthEastsideServices.org.