Suicide Prevention: Keeping Kids Safe
All parents dream about their children leading long, healthy, and fulfilling lives. Losing a child to suicide may be the worst imaginable tragedy. Unfortunately, over 25% of youth deaths in the United States are suicide. In 10-to-24-year-olds, suicide is the second leading cause of death.
Suicide is complicated and impacts young people of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexualities, and communities.
Effects of COVID-19 on children’s mental health
The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted children and families both physically and mentally.
Although childhood mental health concerns and suicide rates have increased for many years, the pandemic severely worsened the situation. Pandemic stressors such as the losses of family members, financial hardship, social isolation, and academic challenges have led to a rise in mental health crises in youth.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association have declared a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
Suicide can be prevented.
Families, pediatric health clinicians, and school staff members can recognize and help children at risk for suicide.
How can parents and families help?
All children and teens experience negative emotions at times.
However, some youth may exhibit sadness, anxiety, or tiredness due to depression.
If you think your child may be experiencing depression, speak with them about what is going on in his or her life and how he or she may be feeling. Bring your child to see the pediatrician, who can help support your family and suggest treatment options.
Communicate with your children frequently and honestly.
Bring up difficult topics and share your own experiences and challenges from when you were younger. Speak to your children when you are concerned. Don’t wait for them to come to you.
Make sure your children know that they are not alone and that everyone struggles.
Speak to your children with empathy and patience. It is natural for parents to feel shocked, upset, and even angry to know their child has considered suicide, but it is most important to focus on your child’s needs without anger or judgment.
Understand that mental health disorders can be treated.
Could your child or teen be struggling with their mental health?
Signs to look out for:
- Dramatic behavior changes
- Changes in sleep patterns including excessive sleeping, insomnia, or difficulty sleeping
- Decrease in self-esteem
- Loss of appetite or weight loss
- A decline in grades or overall school performance
- An extreme change in personality such as aggressiveness or anger
- Written or spoken statements such as “I want to die,” “I don’t care anymore,” or “Nothing matters”
Do not wait to seek out professional help.
If your child is harming themselves or you believe they may want to end their life, immediately bring them to the emergency room or nearest hospital.
If you sense your child is at risk of attempting suicide but is not in immediate danger, contact your pediatrician or mental health provider for an evaluation.
These professionals can help to make a safety plan.
A safety plan may include:
- A list of triggers or signs that may cause your child’s suicidal thoughts
- Strategies to help them cope with triggers and challenging thoughts
- Identifying supportive people such as family, friends, and teachers
- Designating emergency contacts and what to do in future situations
Remove guns and other dangerous items from your home.
Nearly half of youths who commit suicide use a firearm, and most suicide attempts with firearms result in death. The safest option is to take all the guns and ammunition out of your home. (Families may give the weapons to a family member or trusted friend during this time.)
If removing guns from home is not possible, locking and storing guns and ammunition separately is the next best option. Ensure your child does not know the lock combination or have access to the key.
Be aware that your child may consider taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs to hurt themselves. Keep medications locked away and consider only keeping small amounts at home, in blister packs instead of bottles if possible.
In addition to firearms and medications, other household items to consider locking up include alcohol, illegal drugs, inhalants, knives, razors, belts, ropes, plastic bags, and poisonous cleaning products.
Once your child has gotten help, focus on hope and encouragement.
If your child is experiencing shame or stigma, remind them that 1 in every five people experience mental health symptoms in their lives. Reassure your child that people can feel better when they get help and support.
Respect your child’s needs and boundaries but encourage time with loved ones and friends to increase social support. Suggest physical activity to improve mental health symptoms and overall physical health.
Encourage activities your child will enjoy and feel motivated to continue, such as walking outside, exercising at a gym, or taking an online workout class.
Encourage your child to strive for balance and be realistic about expectations.
Avoid activities that will be overwhelming and take time to rest. Reassure yourself and your child that getting better may take time, and setbacks may occur. Be patient and forgiving with your child and encourage them to do the same for themselves.
Remember, if you are concerned about your child, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day every day and can be called from anywhere in the United States by calling 988. Team members at the Lifeline can listen and connect you to resources.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a resource for any concerned parent.
The Trevor Project website has information for parents of LGBTQ2S+ children.
The American Psychological Association has strategies and tools for parents and teens experiencing racial stress.
For more information about passenger safety for children, visit www.healthychildren.org. You can also contact the Injury Free Coalition for Kids, a Program of the Children’s Trust, at 305-243-9080 or online at www.injuryfree.org to make an appointment with a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician to learn more about how to keep your child safe in the car.
Written by Julia Green, with Julia Belkowitz, M.D., M.P.H., Lyse Deus, M.Ed., and Oneith Cadiz, M.D.