September was National Suicide Awareness month. I am going to level with you. I did not enjoy writing this piece.
Suicide isn’t fun to write about, read about or even talk about, but the alternative- not talking- is not acceptable, especially when it comes to our children.
Grab your coffee, sit down and let’s talk.
Suicide is an epidemic in this country. The number of suicides has increased nearly 25% since 1999, across almost all age groups, with greatest increases among middle-aged men and girls 10-14 years old. Suicide deaths are reported in terms of number per 100,000 people. In 2014, that number was 13, nationally. 13? That doesn’t seem like much, does it? It does when you consider that 13/100,000 equals over 42,000 suicides per year, 112 suicides per day, or about 1 suicide every 13 minutes in this country. In comparison, during the same year, there were 5 homicides per 100,000; this means there were almost 3 times as many suicides as homicides.
Unfortunately, here in Vermont, the suicide rate is even higher than the national average, averaging 17.9 per 100,000, equivalent to over 100 suicides per year.
As far as our children are concerned, studies show that suicide is the second leading cause of death in kids 10-24 years old throughout the United States, second only to accidents. The CDC also reports that for every single youth suicide death, there are 25 youth suicide attempts, as opposed to 4 suicide attempts for every suicide death among adults. Here in Vermont, suicide is responsible for more young deaths than homicide or motor vehicle accidents. In a recent study, 21% of Vermont teens met criteria for clinical depression, 11% had a plan on how to take their own lives, and 5% had attempted suicide in the past 12 months. Why am I rattling off all of these statistics?
Last year, my daughter, at age 10 planned to take her own life.
My daughter has always been a strong-willed, happy kid. She is athletic, smart and kind and the definition of a social butterfly. Her transition to middle school was bumpy, but nothing set off alarms to anyone at school or to us. One random day, however, she started crying and soon became inconsolable, unable to articulate the root of her distress. We were very worried and she continued to deteriorate, unable to go to school, running away, screaming at everyone and barely sleeping. Two days later, we found ourselves sitting in our living room with a mental health counselor as our daughter announced, “There is a voice in my head and it is telling me to kill myself.” Common questions filled our heads. “How could this happen so quickly? What did we do? How can we fix it?”
That night, our daughter was taken to an emergency bed in a crisis center to keep her safe, and was subsequently hospitalized for nearly a month. During that month, we discovered that her outward sadness and deterioration were really late signs of her mental anguish. She had felt depressed and anxious for almost a year, had been planning her death for over a month, and she even had a spot in the basement and ropes buried in the yard to carry out her plan. She disclosed that the only reason that she had not hung herself already is that she did not want us to find her. My heart still breaks as I type that. My initial reaction was despair, but as she got help and my shock dissipated, I felt relief and gratitude that she was alive.
I try very hard not to look back and say, “What did I do wrong?” but rather focus on, “What did I learn?” and “How can we improve the future?” not only for our daughter but for all the children in our communities.
Let me lead by saying, I am not a mental health professional, nor an expert on suicide. I am just a parent who came way too close to losing her daughter and want to prevent all parents from experiencing that loss or near loss. The following are my personal, unprofessional suggestions, to arm and encourage parents in the fight to prevent youth suicide:
Talk about suicide. Talk about mental illness. Like I said earlier, it’s not a comfortable conversation. It’s tragic and painful, but ignoring these topics because they are difficult to talk about or even because you are worried that kids are impressionable or can’t handle it does not solve the problem. Let me assure you that ignoring problems generally empowers them and kids ARE impressionable and they ARE talking about suicide whether they can handle it our not. So join the conversation. Provide facts, answer questions and encourage discussion. When we talk about mental illness and suicide, kids realize that it’s ok for them to talk about it and ask questions too.
In my daughter’s case, I thought she was too young to talk in detail about suicide and I was afraid that talking about it might traumatize her, but little did I know, kids were talking in detail about it on the bus after a local tragedy. Not only did she learn hearsay details about another child’s death, she also was curious enough to ask detailed questions, even so far as to know what kind of knot to use to hang herself.
2) Observe and Inquire.
You know your child best, so watch for changes, even subtle ones. Notice new behaviors without categorizing them as good or bad, just name them, and inquire about the feelings behind them. Validate the feelings, even if you don’t agree or even fully understand. Let your child know that you noticed the change and that you care about the feeling behind it. Remember how hard middle and high school years are socially, physically and emotionally. When our children are young, we often use the adage, “Is it a big problem or a little problem?” I think this can be very helpful as long as we as parents remember that even though the problem may be little, a follow-up question may be about how big the feelings are, because often little problems still spark big feelings, and feelings often have the greatest impact on actions.
3) Utilize Resources and Get Help.
Take all direct and indirect threats seriously. Experts estimate that individuals who threaten or insinuate that they might take their own life are 30 times more likely to do so. I am not suggesting that you call 911 if your child yells, “I bet you’d be happier if I died,” but this outcry deserves further investigation and conversation. Help is available in both emergent and non-emergent situations, and again, asking for help models skill and strength for our children, who are always watching and learning. This is one thing that I know I did right and what I think saved my daughter’s life. We called family, friends, and professionals for help immediately and they helped keep her safe while in crisis and are still helping her today. Local and national resources will be listed below.
4) Advocate and Educate.
This applies to both getting the help you need and promoting suicide prevention. Accessing services is sometimes challenging due to limited resources and the red tape of insurance companies. My daughter was almost discharged a week after she was admitted to the hospital because she was convincingly telling doctors that she was better, when in actuality she still had a plan and a backup plan, and we knew she was not safe. Our concerns fell on many deaf ears, but eventually someone listened. Follow your gut and fight for what you and your child need. Their lives may depend on it and don’t be afraid to say so.
We also need to advocate for education and prevention in our communities. There are several national and state recognized prevention programs for public sector use, as well as professional services willing to provide in-services and help post-crisis. Our children should be learning about mental illness and suicide in school (as well as at home), especially in the wake of a tragedy and/or crisis. Educate yourself so that you can advocate for your child’s education. Ask your school what suicide prevention curriculum they are using and let them know you can provide some suggestions. Our children should be prepared not only to identify and talk about their own feelings and struggles, but also know how to safely support and access help for peers who might be in danger.
A year ago, I would have balked if anyone told me that my daughter was depressed or suicidal. Our lives are forever changed, but I am so thankful for the awakening.
Don’t think that you or your children are immune, because mental illness and suicide do not discriminate; all races, genders, religions, sexual orientations and ages are at risk.
I have written this post anonymously to protect my daughter’s identity. I am not ashamed, nor is she. She is aware that I wrote this blog entry and even told me that she doesn’t care if people know it’s her (yes, folks, she is that brave!), but sharing her identity adds nothing to the information I am trying to disseminate and I feel strongly that kids should be protected, regardless of the issue at hand. Please don’t misinterpret my desire for her privacy as shame, because nothing could be further from the truth. She also served as my editor on this post and informed me that it needs a happy ending. I asked her how to write a universally happy ending to such a tough subject? Her response,
“Just tell them that with help we can get better.”
- Vermont Human Services Database: 2-1-1
- First Call for Children and Families 24/7 Crisis Line (Chittenden): (802) 488-7777
- Adult Mobile Crisis Unit 24/7 Hotline (Chittenden): (802) 488-6400
- Northwestern Counseling 24/7 Crisis Line (Franklin): (802)524-6554
- The Counseling Service of Addison County, Inc. 24/7 Hotline: (802) 388-7641
- Washington County Mental Health Services, Inc. 24/7 Crisis Line: (802) 229-0591
- Lamoille County Mental Health Services Crisis M-F 8-4:30: (802) 888-5026
- Lamoille County Mental Health Services Crisis Nights/Weekends: (802) 888-8888
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1(800) 273-TALK
- National Youth Crisis Hotline: 1(800) 442-HOPE
- National Hopeline Network: 1(800) SUICIDE
- The Vermont Suicide Prevention Center: http://vtspc.org
- VT Department of Health: http://healthvermont.gov/family/injury/suicide_prevent.aspx
- Youth Suicide Prevention Program: http://www.yspp.org
- National Center for the Prevention of Youth Suicide: http://www.suicidology.org/NCPYS