Youth Suicide Prevention
Matthew Wintersteen, Ph.D. was the key note speaker for the opening of this year’s year’s Annual PA Council of Children, Family, and Youth Services Conference. Dr. Wintersteen is with the Thomas Jefferson University Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior and is one of the leading voices in the research and treatment of youth suicide prevention.
This is an incredibly important issue that all who work with children, including parents themselves, should be attuned to. Here are some of the highlights from his presentation.
Myths About Suicide
Myth #1: Suicides happen without warning. Most people who attempt or die by suicide have communicated their distress or plans to at least one person.
Myth #2: Suicide is an act of aggression, anger or revenge. Most people kill themselves because they fell they do not belong or are a burden on others.
Myth #3: Talking about Suicide makes people more likely to kill themselves. There are not iatrogenic effects of asking about suicide. Discussion brings it into the open and allows an opportunity for intervention.
Myth #4: People who talk about suicide are not serious about killing themselves. Many people who are considering suicide tell others about these thoughts. However, the mention of suicide often makes people uncomfortable, and as a result they may not be taken seriously.
Myth #5: Suicide thoughts and behaviors are ways to get attention. Take any mention of suicide or suicide behavior seriously regardless of your thoughts about their true motives. We need help people identify more effective ways to seek having their needs met without dismissing the severity of their expressed thoughts, concerns or behaviors.
Myth #6: Suicidal teens overreact to life events. We have to remember that perceived crises are just as concerning and predictive of suicidal behavior as actual crises.
Myth #7: Suicide cannot be prevented. Most people are actually suicidal between 24-72 hours. Providing help and intervention during this time makes it less likely that that will make another attempt. Taking someone’s feeling seriously and listening can truly save a life.
Youth Suicide Warning Signs
- Talking about or making plans for suicide.
- Expressing hopelessness about the future. Particularly someone who has spent a lot of time and effort trying to improve their situation to no avail.
- Communicating and/or displaying severe, overwhelming emotional distress. Particularly when there is a mix of dissimilar emotions, ex. being angry, tearful and sad.
- Showing worrisome behavioral cues or marked changes in behavior, particularly in the presence of the other prior noted warning signs. Primary behavioral cues would include: 1- Withdraw from, or situationally pushed away from, social connections and interactions. 2- An increase in agitation or irritability. 3 – Anger or hostility, in a manner seems peculiarly for them. 4- Changes in sleep or a dramatic decrease in energy and being tired, out of the norm for the individual.
What Should You Should Do
- First and foremost, talk to children who display the warning signs. Even as adults, our tendency is to leave them alone, because you don’t want to bother them, or just assume it is a bad day or “a phase.” Ask if they are OK or if they are having thoughts of suicide.
- Express your concern about what you are observing in their behavior. Talking about suicide does not put the thought into people’s minds. You don’t want to make this the first thing you ask or speak about, but if you are concerned about it, talk about it. When you ask someone how they are doing, they always say, “fine.” Don’t leave it at that. Say, well, this is what I am worried about, are you sure you are fine?
- Be quiet and listen. Our instinct as parents is to fix our children’s problems. Our kids don’t always want our advice, they always want us to hear what they are saying.
- Tell them they are not alone. You may not know, personally what they are experiencing, but thank them for sharing, and let them know you are there for them.
- Let them know there are treatments that can help – there is hope.
- If you or they are concerned, guide them to professional help.
Some Important Resources
Crisis Text Line – Text “PA” to 741741 (free and confidential)