Suicide Prevention: Recognizing Red Flag Behaviors in Youth

September 6, 2019

Each September we celebrate the beginning of a new academic year, a time often filled with optimism and excitement over a fresh start. Starting school can stir up a multitude of emotions, whether a child is new to a building or moving up to the next grade. While many children are able to approach the new year with positive expectations, some struggle to adjust and grapple with worry and concern over what lies ahead. Between academic pressures, social obligations and change in general, turning over a new leaf can be tough.

September marks another significant event – National Suicide Prevention Week. A topic that has been gaining more recognition lately due to shows like Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” and national news stories, suicide is concerning alarming for adults and children alike. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24. The suicide rate for teenage girls reached an all-time high in 2015 and for black children ages 5 to 11, suicide is considered a national emergency.  

Parents and guardians are responsible for their children’s health and well-being, including regular check-ups with a physician, a common and often required back-to-school ritual. Less talked about but equally perhaps more important, raising children must also include nurturing their mental health. Spotting the signs of a child who ismaybestruggling can be the difference between life and death, and sometimes those signs are hard to distinguish from normal developmental stages.

Suicidal behavior among youth is complicated and can be difficult to differentiate from normal responses to the challenges of being a child in this day and age. Ready to conquer the world one day and reluctant to get out of bed the next, many youth are temperamental by nature. As a parent, it is important to be an astute observer of changes in their moods and behaviors. In general, you should contact a mental health professional if you observe excessive worry, sudden changes in behavior, disruption of sleep, isolation from families or friends, use of drugs and alcohol, increased acts of anger or aggression or frequent and rapid changes in mood.

Risk of suicide is heightened for children who struggle with health issues such as bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, serious physical health conditions and traumatic brain injuries. Other at-risk groups include children who struggle with gender identity or sexual orientation, who are sadly and frequently subjected to bullying by their peers. Family history, previous suicide attempts and abuse, neglect or trauma also play a role in determining someone’s risk level. If youth experience a sudden increase in stress, they may react with suicidal ideation which can lead to a suicide attempt.

Any indication that your child feels unwanted, unloved, hopeless or helpless should be taken seriously. If your child says things like “I hate myself,” “I hate my life” or “Nobody cares if I am no longer around,” you need to respond and take immediate action. They may not be suicidal, but by addressing their concerns, asking the right questions and taking them to see a doctor or mental health professional, you could save their life. Do not take a chance and let it slide.

Encourage your child to talk about their feelings by prompting them and asking questions. Active listening is key to engaging a child when they are experiencing emotional upset. For instance, if your child, regardless of age, comes home from school and seems upset, a good first response is, “You seem upset.” Ask them what is bothering them and allow them to respond. You may say, “From what I understand, you are having a rough day because of XYZ. I’m sorry that happened to you.” How can I help?” This opens a doorway for them to express their emotions, which youth often struggle to do. Once you understand what is going on, you can assess the situation and provide the proper support.

Listening and following your child’s lead will make them feel more comfortable and signal to them that you are trying to understand what they are experiencing. Many parents instinctively jump in and give advice, but that is not always the best approach. In general, people do not process advice well when they are upset. It is best to say something like, “How can I help?” so to allow your child to tell you what they need. There will be plenty of opportunities to offer solutions, after your child has calmed down.

When speaking with your child, do not be afraid to ask them if they have been thinking of hurting or killing themselves. Asking about suicide or suicidal thoughts does not cause harm or plant a seed in someone’s mind. Not only does it provide an opportunity to evaluate your child’s risk, but it demonstrates that you are open to discussing emotional problems. If your child is struggling, it is important to tell them that it is okay to feel sad or anxious and that they are not alone.

If you continue to have concerns, no matter how small, do not take chances. It is truly better to be safe than sorry. Do not be apprehensive about seeking professional help for you or your loved one. By scheduling an appointment for a consultation with your child’s pediatrician or a mental health expert, you can ultimately save a life. If you live in Dutchess or Ulster County, or the Bronx, NY, you can bring your child into one of Astor Services for Children & Families’ mental health clinics, no appointment necessary.