The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a devastating toll – especially on our youth. Emerging data suggests that depression and suicide concerns have increased among adolescents and young adults ages 12 to 21. Even more alarming, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that suicide rates among children aged 5 to 11 increased nearly 15% each year between 2012 and 2017.
Suicide – especially youth suicide – can be a tough subject to navigate and discuss, but that makes these conversations even more important. Talking about suicide helps take it out of the shadows. And contrary to popular belief, talking about suicide does not encourage or lead someone to take action. Nobody gets hurt from having the conversation. Rather, it often allows the young person to give voice to their struggle.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports suicide is the third-leading cause of death for children aged 10-14. It’s vital that as a Mental Health First Aider, you understand the signs and symptoms a young person considering suicide may exhibit and know how you can use your skills to help. Having open dialogue with youth surrounding suicide and knowing how to support a young person in a crisis can help mitigate some of these risks.
A young person who is contemplating suicide may show one or more signs – or they may not show any at all. Keep these warning signs in mind:
- Threatening to hurt or kill themselves.
- Experiencing rage or anger, or seeking revenge.
- Withdrawing from friends, family or society.
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness.
- Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide (including in schoolwork, creative writing and artwork).
- Giving away their prized possessions.
Undiagnosed, untreated or undertreated depression, bullying, experiencing a traumatic event, and struggling with sexual orientation are just a few risk factors that may be associated with youth suicide.
However, there are protective factors that can contribute to resiliency. Factors like strong family and social supports, healthy self-esteem, consistent routines, economic security and good problem-solving skills can help protect a young person from experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis or challenge. The support of family members or other caregivers can be crucial to stop a young person who’s considering suicide from moving forward with it.
As a First Aider, you are another important protective factor! You can be an initial support resource for a youth experiencing a crisis, and it’s important to know how to handle the situation. Here are some tips from the Youth Mental Health First Aid curriculum:
- Ask the young person directly if they are having thoughts of suicide or thinking about killing themselves. Appearing confident in the face of the suicide crisis can be reassuring for the young person. It’s important to ask the question without dread or expressing any negative judgement.
- Always seek professional help when a young person is exhibiting suicidal ideation. This may mean taking them to the emergency department of a hospital, a community mental health center or a doctor’s office.
- Express empathy for the young person and what they are going through. Give them the opportunity to talk about their feelings. Listen nonjudgmentally and talk about some of the specific problems they face. The young person may get great relief from talking about their experiences.
- Clearly state that thoughts of suicide are common, and that help is available to discuss these thoughts. This may instill a sense of hope. Offer emotional support and hope of a more positive future in whatever form the young person will accept.
- Do not leave a young person who is experiencing a crisis alone. People rarely act on suicidal thoughts with other people present.
Suicidal thoughts are serious and should always be followed up with professional help and resources. Your safety and the youth’s safety are the top priority. Following a crisis, you can also seek help to talk about your feelings and do some self-care.
Talking about youth suicide isn’t easy, but you can #BeTheDifference for a young person by knowing the warning signs, having resources readily available and being there for someone who’s experiencing a crisis.
If you or someone you care about feels overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression or anxiety, or like you want to harm yourself or others, please call 911.
You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or text MHFA to “741-741” to talk to a Crisis Text Line counselor.
For more information and resources on youth suicide, check out these links: