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Doc's Corner: Understanding and Preventing Adolescent Suicide: Part II
January 17th, 2019

In last week’s column, I presented warning signs and risk factors related to Teen suicide. This is, obviously, a very serious topic. Today, we’ll look at some of the things parents can do to make a difference, and to minimize the risks.

Knowledge is the first step. Knowing warning signs and risk factors is essential. Issues of depression and anxiety need to be taken very seriously. Warning signs do not mean your child will attempt to harm themselves, but should not be ignored. Their feelings need to be taken seriously, and not dismissed as a passing thoughts or need for attention.

Communication with your child is essential. Positive interactions, including compliments and positive feedback, are preventive tools. Even if they are not talking about problems, stress, fears or anxieties, you should pay close attention, and be aware of the stresses and difficulties they may be going through – e.g., breakups, school problems, bullying, medical problems, peer pressure – and talk to them about how they are feeling. Avoid grilling them, and listen to how they feel. Active listening from a concerned, caring parent will make the child feel understood and cared for, and feel like they are not alone in their distress.

Take all threats seriously. The first level of suicidal thought is called “ideation.” At this stage, teens may just be contemplating harming themselves as a way of coping with their problems. It is important to listen non-judgmentally, and provide love and support. Do not tell them that “they don’t mean it” or that it is “crazy or ridiculous.” Let them know how much you care about them, that you will help them find solutions to their issues, and that most problematic things are temporary. It is also important to seek professional help right away. You can contact your pediatrician or school counselor for a referral to a licensed mental health provider who specializes in adolescents.

Share your feelings with them. Let them know that it is normal to have fears, depression and sadness, and that sharing these thoughts and feelings often help provide a different and more positive perspective. Options can reduce a sense of hopelessness.

Appropriately monitor your child’s whereabouts, and social media communications. Teens frequently utilize social media to express their concerns and thoughts. Be aware of their friends and coaches, and communicate regularly with other parents in the community. Very often, children will tell parents about what their friends are thinking or doing.

Drugs and alcohol are serious issues, and related to self-harm. All and any use is risky use, and should be addressed. You may not be able to prevent your child from experimenting, but I believe it is essential that they know where you stand, and that you maintain a zero tolerance attitude.

If you keep guns at home, store them safely, and consider removing them if you are aware of a pending crisis. Suicide from firearms among youth topped a 12 year high in 2013, with most of the deaths involving a gun belonging to a family member. These deaths may have been prevented if a gun was not available.

Help lower any stigma associated with getting mental health treatment. Let them know that it is a positive step, and does not mean they are “crazy.” Help them understand the value of therapy, and medication if needed. Let them know that getting help is a process, and is not accomplished immediately. Assist them in not being too hard on themselves or not having unrealistic demands or expectations.

Encourage your child not to isolate themselves. If you have concern, or if they have verbalized thoughts of self-harm, do not leave them alone until you have had an evaluation by a professional. Follow the professional’s recommendations and guidelines.

For those parents who have to deal with suicidal feelings with their teens, it is incredibly frightening. Knowing what to look for, and taking proper actions, is the best thing one can do to avoid a tragic outcome.

Remember, if you have issues you would like to see addressed, please email me at askdrgelbart@gmail.com.

Moe Gelbart, Ph.D. 
Executive Director, Thelma McMillen Center