The suicide of two celebrities in a single week. Two people who had it all, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. No one spoke of their pain beforehand. None of us knew.
What does this mean for us as parents?
It means that after all this time, there remains a stigma associated with mental health that prevents people from talking about their health concerns. Which begs the question: if there had been no stigma regarding mental health issues, would these two celebrities and countless others now be dead by their own hands? If they hadn’t been afraid to reach out for help, or perhaps ashamed to do so, might they have received the help they needed to stop them from ending it all?
The stigma that makes it so difficult to speak of these things makes it even more imperative to speak about mental health year round and not just in May, a month arbitrarily chosen as National Mental Health Awareness Month. We must put a spotlight on the impact of dialogue. Especially when it comes to kids and teens.
Mental health problems are not limited by age, and are in fact common among children and adolescents. Most children understand the meaning of the word “suicide” by the third grade, which should shock and dismay us as parents. As for teens, according to the Centers For Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the leading cause of death in young people aged 15-19, with the leading cause of teen suicide being mental illness.
So where do we go from here? How do we remove the stigma? Facilitating dialogue is the obvious first step. And beginning the discussion of mental health at a young age will naturally translate into a better-educated adulthood. One where a Kate Spade or an Anthony Bourdain could speak of their issues publicly and receive the help and support they need. To make positive change, in other words, we must start having tough conversations about mental health with our kids.
Underscoring the fact that mental health should be an ongoing discussion, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has found that, “more than 90% of children who die by suicide have a mental health condition.” Understanding mental health and its role in our overall health is essential. The more knowledge you obtain, the easier it is to understand the importance of diagnosis and treatment.
Take depression, for instance. Thirteen percent of 12 to 17-year-olds experience some type of depression. As parents we need to know that depression is diagnosed when five of the following symptoms are present:
- Feeling sad, or irritable and angry, nearly all the time
- No interest in day-to-day activities
- Loss or increase of appetite, noticeable weight loss or gain
- Can’t sleep or sleeps too much
- Nervous and jazzed up or listless
- Tired all the time, has no energy
- Feeling worthless or guilty without cause
- Can’t concentrate or make decisions
- Thinks about or talks about death and dying and suicide; May have a suicide plan
If your child has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, you may not know where to begin, or what questions to ask. You might take to Google and research your child’s mental health problem. But it’s difficult to know which resources are trustworthy. One good place to begin is Jumo Health. Among its many free health materials are several mental health resources geared to the layman.
There are Jumo discussion guides, for most of the common mental health issues affecting youth, for instance Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression. Each guide contains a set of questions that are illness-specific to help guide conversation between patient (or parent of a patient) and doctor. The doctor is a key resource in any mental health quest, the address for questions and a place to receive answers, too.
In addition to education, it’s important to establish the utter normalcy of a struggle with mental illness, to create an authentic voice for those who suffer. Jumo offers podcasts that follow the stories of real teens living with illness, including a series specific to mental health and suicide prevention. A teen can listen to the story of Gianna, for instance, a teenager who suffers from depression and anxiety.
In her podcast, Gianna shares her experiences with mental illness and a suicide attempt in order to connect other teens to her journey in a relatable manner. Hearing a real person like Gianna talk about a diagnosis of mental illness can allow other sufferers to feel a sense of camaraderie. Listening to Gianna speak, teens can come to feel that they are not alone.
Knowing the Risk Factors
Mental illness, for example depression, is the leading cause of teen suicide. But while depression and other mental health conditions are risk factors for suicide, a diagnosis of mental illness is only one signpost. Other behaviors and risk factors for suicide that should alert parents of teens to the possibility of suicide include:
- Chronic physical illness
- Family history of suicide
- Substance abuse
- Feeling hopeless
- Lack of impulse control
- Acts out, is aggressive
- Loss of income/financial problems
- Social issues
- Loss of or lack of social network, isolation
- Loss of a relationship
- Easy access to suicide means and methods
- Knows someone who committed suicide
- Past suicide attempt(s)
- Mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia
To be clear, having risk factors for suicide does not mean that your child will try to commit suicide. However, teens showing signs of these risk factors means there is a higher risk for attempting suicide than for those teens who do not have these behaviors and risk factors. To limit a teen’s risk for suicide parents should:
- Offer easy access to treatment for physical and mental health disorders and for substance abuse
- Limit access to methods and items that could be used to commit suicide
- Provide unconditional support from a variety of sources, for instance, family, friends, and community
- Work to build good relationships with and provide easy access to physical and mental health care professionals and personnel
- Practice social skills at home, for instance problem-solving and nonviolent conflict-resolution
- Hold and express strong household or personal religious and/or cultural beliefs that discourage suicide
Know whom to call if you need help. If you or someone you know is suffering from the threat of suicide, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides instant contact with a mental health care professional. Anyone who is depressed, thinking about committing suicide, or simply needs to talk can use this service. The lifeline provides free, confidential support to those in distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you are in need, you can reach the lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There may be other local prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones.
Here is what you need to know: you can be the difference. The solution to improving the discussion on mental health is through awareness, education and support. You can break the stigma by beginning conversations about mental health. And that’s important, because those who are struggling should not feel ashamed or be afraid to speak out about mental health. To the contrary, asking for help and receiving treatment is something to be encouraged, a matter of pride.
Our teens see the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and they wonder: is suicide an option for me? We must let them know that the only option is to say, “I’m suffering. Help me, please.”
And then we must follow through with kindness and compassion. We must let them know we stand behind them no matter what and no matter how long it takes to get better. Because love is love: it knows no boundaries or shame.
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