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Focusing on Suicide Prevention for Our Youth

Alicia Leslie, MSW, LCSW Alicia Leslie, MSW, LCSW September 25, 2020 0 Comments Family Medicine

Suicide. That seven letter word that can create panic and extreme waves of grief for entire communities. An action that is labeled as horrific, painful, hopeless yet preventable. A decision that is intimately personal and forever. A topic that can make parents anxious and reach to cover their child’s ears saying, “not my child.”

Governor Evers proclaimed September as Suicide Prevention Month. Suicide is a public health issue in Wisconsin and a local concern that touches Jefferson County. Suicide does not discriminate. Wisconsin’s suicide rate increased by 40 percent from 2000-2017 – the nation similarly experienced an increase despite healthcare advancements. Suicide was ranked as one of the 10 leading causes of death across all age groups in 2017; 50.6 percent of the 47,173 suicides nationwide in 2017 were completed by firearm. Seventy-eight of the total suicides in 2017 were completed by males. In 2019, 850 Wisconsin residents died by suicide.

Among youth ages 1-26, suicide is the second leading cause of death. Suicide by firearm remains a highly utilized and successful method. Forty-five percent of adolescents in Wisconsin who died by suicide between 2016 and 2018 died by firearm with a vast majority accessing a gun belonging to a parent. Despite education and outreach preventative measures targeted at parents, parents are often over-confident that their child would not know how to access or touch a firearm. Again, I repeat, suicide does not discriminate.

About 1 in 13 high school students attempt suicide one or more times. Seventy-one percent of suicide deaths between 2016 and 2018 for youth ages 10-19 were males. Whereas males are more likely to die by suicide, females are more likely to harm themselves.

The challenges faced by today’s youth are unique to their age, race and gender identity and require early intervention. Early intervention and prevention demands that we not only focus on the numbers that complete suicide, but also the individuals that experience thoughts of suicide (suicidal ideation) as that population is 225.5 times larger than the population who die by suicide. Suicidal ideation in youth can result from a host of stressors: issues in school from failing grades to bullying and rejection, racial and/or gender identity prejudice and discrimination, major life transitions, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s), having a family member or friend die by suicide, or possessing a firearm in the household.

For a public health issue that plagues our state and nation, I urge you to hear that suicide is preventable. While there is demographic data that tells us what population subsets are at increased risk for suicide, one life lost to suicide is one too many. Suicide prevention starts with talking about suicide. For our youth, I implore the adults in their lives to speak the unspeakable. Say the word, ask the questions, find help when it’s needed. As a professional in the field, I can tell you that the idea that talking about suicide will make youth more likely to attempt suicide is a myth. Talking about the issue does not plant a suggestible seed, but it can save a life.

Organizations have varying commitments to suicide prevention. A Zero Suicide Organization will screen their patients for suicide at every visit. Some may experience this as strange or unnecessarily intrusive, but the overriding message is – we care about you, your life is important, you matter, and there is help available. We are also communicating that we are going to speak the unspeakable. We are going to normalize what is largely stigmatized in the general public and let you know once you are safe that hope and healing is possible.

I have met with numerous youth in a therapeutic setting that were younger than 10. Several of those youth have had thoughts of dying and death, have expressed they’d rather be dead or not wake up one day, stated that life or a situation is too overwhelming and screamed in the moment, “I’m just going to kill myself.” I may not have learned that in my first session with them if I did not screen for and assess suicidality. I directly asked the questions in a child friendly way, and in return, I received very direct and explicit answers. I was told very detailed and concrete plans to end their life that shocked parents. Parents looking at me with eyes that said, “I had no idea my child was capable of these thoughts,” “But he’s only 7,” and expressions that showed a mix of shock and pain for their suffering child. This is the first step to assisting anyone with securing help. If you don’t ask, they may not tell. Asking also communicates that you’re open to speaking about suicide in a non-judgmental and supportive way. Other actionable things you can do to help someone in emotional pain are:

  1. Be there: Whether you are physically present or speaking on the phone, be available when you can to show support. Truly listen and hear what the person is thinking and feeling.
  2. Keep them safe: Decreasing access to highly lethal items or places is a critical piece of suicide prevention. Asking the at-risk person if there is a plan for suicide and then removing or disabling those lethal means can make a difference. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that the safest place for a child is one without guns, but parents can store firearms safely in a home by using gun locks, gun cases, or locked cabinets. Ammunition should be stored and locked separately and all family members must understand firearm safety.
  3. Help them connect: For a person that experiences suicidal ideation, connecting them to ongoing supports is crucial. This connection can serve as their tight rope to living when finding themselves in a state of crisis. These supports could be a family member, friend, spiritual advisor, trusted adult, or mental health professional. Support lines can also be accessed – 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Lifeline Chat. Text “HOPELINE” to 741741 on mobile devices.
  4. Follow-up: After first hearing about a person’s suicidal ideation and connecting them with the immediate support systems they need, follow-up with that person to check in. This can help to humanize the experience and let them know that they’ve been heard, they matter.

Our youth depend on the adults in their lives to help guide them along this bumpy and adventurous journey of life. As adults, it is our job to seek information and apply that knowledge to create best outcomes for our children. Want to do even more? Join the campaign to raise awareness during September’s Suicide Prevention Month by downloading and sharing the resources and social media graphics available at https://www.preventsuicidewi.org/suicide-prevention-month.