Recently, during National Suicide Prevention Week, extensive efforts were made to both increase awareness of the risks for suicide as well as specific ways to help those at risk. In the past several days, despite these efforts, there have been reports of young people -- like 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer -- who have taken their own lives. It is important to know that suicide is not the result of one but of many contributing factors, and while a negative environment at school and/or at home can impact a person's psychological well-being, each of those individual factors does not automatically lead to a young person ending their life.
These recent deaths are vital reminders of the crucial steps we all need to take to work to prevent more young people from taking their lives. These steps include working to minimize and address risk factors associated with suicide as well as increasing awareness of and expanding access to protective factors including emotional support.
As parents, it may be difficult to distinguish whether your child is just having a bad day or if their feelings of depression, anxiety and isolation, which can be the result of many factors, including negative treatment from their peers, are becoming pervasive and impacting their self-image, daily functioning and self-worth. While it can be challenging to truly understand what your child is feeling and experiencing, with CARE, you can improve your communication and connection with them which can then help them to share their troubles and get the support and assistance they need.
CONNECT and ACCEPT
These first two steps are about talking and listening -- really listening, without judgment -- to what your child tells you and accepting that whatever it is, it is their truth.
Make a practice of asking your child about their day. What are you looking forward to? What are the problems in your life? What do you dread? Tell me about it. Be specific and ask for details, including emotionally painful ones. If your child says that someone called them a name, sent a nasty text or physically harmed them, ask how it affected them and what their response was. By connecting with them and accepting them, your child is more likely to share difficult feelings and experiences because they trust you and trust that they won't be judged.
RESPOND and EMPOWER
Of course, in addition to talking openly about feelings at home, it's important that you take steps to identify and respond to problems or potential problems as they arise. These steps are the responsibility of both you and your child. Working together to address their problems and develop tools to help them through these difficulties can empower them, improve their psychological well-being and potentially be life-saving.
Don't judge, but do offer coaching: Is there a teacher, counselor or administrator at school you'd feel safe and comfortable talk with about what happened? In addition to these daily connections helping build a bond with your child, they are also a place to help establish strategies, including safety plans, to address their difficulties. What are the things that are upsetting you, and where are those problems happening? If the difficulties are occurring at school, ask about the details as well as the names of the people involved. How often does this happen? How do you feel when this happens? Is a teacher or other school employee aware of what's happening and, if so, how have they responded? Who else knows?
The next step is finding out what changes need to happen to work toward improving the situation. Ask your child what they want to do about it and how they think it can change. What will it take to make it better at school? Who else needs to be involved? How long are you willing to give this change to happen? When do you want to take the first step? Empower them to take a leading role in making the changes they want to happen, but let them know that you are there with them, every step of the way. In addition, be an advocate for your child and their safety. Work with other parents and school employees to ensure a safe school for all children.
If your child says they are sad or depressed, talk about it with them. If they tell you they're thinking about suicide, talk about it with them. You won't be putting the idea of suicide into their head. Instead, you'll be giving them the message that you're open and comfortable hearing about these thoughts and will then be better able to give them support, address their thoughts of suicide and respond by accessing the appropriate help especially if they have a plan in mind. When you say you want to die, are you thinking about killing yourself? Have you thought about how you would end your life? What are the things that are causing you to want to end your life? I love you and care about you and your safety and would like us to make a call together to get you help to deal with all of the painful, stressful emotions and problems in your life.
It's important not to let society's stigma about mental health treatment prevent you from getting your child the vital help, with a mental health professional, they may need. This includes empowering them to contact a counselor, social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist or a lifeline or 911, on their own or together.
Throughout it all, continue to encourage your child, reminding them that they are valuable, loved and very important to you, their family and friends.
As a parent, there are things you can do to help support your child, including opening lines of communication and establishing trust early, which can then help your child in times of crisis. Get familiar with resources that are available to you and your child, including counseling, community support groups, safe, social networks with support groups and lifeline numbers. Your love and support may help save a child's life.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The Trevor Lifeline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning young people under 24: 1-866-488-7386 or www.thetrevorproject.org.
Follow Jeffrey Fishberger, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TrevorProject