Reducing Suicide Among Children
by Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)
(listen to article read by the author)
You love your kids. The last thing you want to think about is that your child might commit suicide. Tragically suicide is the second leading cause of death for kids and youth ages 15 to 24-years-old
Is there anything you can do today to prevent a tragedy like this from happening? Some parents who have suffered the devastating loss of their child to suicide are working hard to prevent it in other families.
Opening Up About Depression and Suicide
John and Susie Trautwein lost their 15-year-old son, Will, to suicide. Will is the oldest of their four children. In John’s book, My Living Will: A Father’s Story of Loss & Hope
, he describes their families’ fun, loving atmosphere. The night Will hung himself they had no indication that he was depressed let alone suicidal.
Will was doing well in school and sports plus had plenty of friends. It’s hard to imagine that kids like Will would feel like ending their lives. Yet it happens.
Michael Phelps, Olympic swimmer and winner of 28 medals, struggled with depression since his teens. In this article titled “Michael Phelps: 'I am extremely thankful that I did not take my life'”
Phelps reports falling into major depression after every Olympics. He finally reached out for help when he hit an all-time low where he wasn’t eating or sleeping well and didn’t want to be alive.
The article quotes Phelps saying "I was very good at compartmentalizing things and stuffing things away that I didn't want to talk about, I didn't want to deal with, I didn't want to bring up -- I just never ever wanted to see those things." After learning to talk about his feelings, he reports life was much easier.
People who share their struggles with suicidal thoughts help break the taboo of talking about it. Seattle Times columnist Matt Calkins wrote about his own mental health challenges in this article “Player’s Death A Reminder Help is Here”
. He was inspired to share his struggles after the suicide death of Washington State college quarterback Tyler Hilinski.
Recognizing Boys’ Vulnerable Feelings
Males are 3.5 times more likely to die from suicide than females. Part of what puts them at higher risk is society’s expectations of males.
In an interview with Krista Tippett
, Brené Brown discusses her research on shame. Brown reports "For men, there’s a really kind of singular, suffocating expectation and that is do not be perceived as weak.” These expectations are woven into the fabric of our society. At a high school football game, the Marines at the recruiting table wore shirts that said “Pain is weakness leaving the body”.
If males are not supposed to show any weakness, what do they do with feelings like fear, disappointment or sadness? Some turn these emotions outward expressing them as anger or aggression. Others turn these emotions inward criticizing themselves. Both choices bury the underlying vulnerable emotions.
How can boys be helped to deal with their difficult feelings? Some schools have created safe groups where boys can share their struggles. The Seattle Times article “Despondent Seattle teen found a future through film; now he’s giving back”
describes how a group like this helped Vannady Keo.
“As a freshman at Kentlake High School, Keo was struggling with depression, not doing well at school and at odds with his Cambodian-born parents.
'I was just a typical American kid. My parents wanted me to have Cambodian roots, so those were some things we argued about,’ Keo said. ‘In school I always had a lot of friends. I would always try and hide my depression by hanging out with them, being the cool kid, the class clown.’”
Things changed for Keo when he joined the Southeast Asian Young Men’s group. The group met weekly to discuss common experiences of feeling isolated, depressed and disconnected from their parents. Keo said sharing his problems helped him realize he wasn’t alone.
Realizing you aren’t alone is healing for both boys and girls. After their son’s death, John and Susie Trautwein started the Will To Live
organization to help kids support each other. This organization promotes kids letting their friends know they love them and are there for them. As they explain on their site “we believe that help and support from a friend may just be the most effective way to ensure our kids find that ‘Will To Live’ – that will to fight through the difficult times, because they know they are not alone!”
Seeking Professional Help For Children
What are some red flag behaviors
indicating a child may need help? Diane had noticed her teenage daughter, Chloe, had been overreacting to little things. Diane thought it was perhaps from the pressure of the new school year or just hormones. However, when Chloe blew up at her brother for losing her hairbands (which in fact Chloe had accidentally tossed in with the dirty laundry), Diane decided to make an appointment for Chloe to see the school psychologist.
After seeing Chloe, the psychologist immediately called Diane. This was serious. Chloe had a plan for how she was going to kill herself. Diane was shocked. She had no idea that Chloe had even considered killing herself. Chloe entered an in-patient treatment program and got the help she needed.
By reaching out for help, Diane may very well have saved Chloe's life. If your gut tells you something isn’t right with one of your kids, it is wise to get outside help.
Even if you don’t think your children would consider suicide, talk to them about it. By opening up the conversation, you let them know that you can handle hearing about their difficulties. Life will be challenging for your kids at times. Hopefully knowing there are people they can turn to for help will prevent them from turning to suicide as a solution.