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Young people who take their own lives: know the warning signs of mental illness
We are saddened by the continuing statistics surfacing around youth suicide, including the 2 most recent in Parkland, Florida. While school safety is the largest visible topic that we address across the country with our STOPit platform, the hidden issue we address far more commonly relates to youth depression, mental illness and suicidal thoughts.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), for every child lost in a school violence/shooting in the United States, there are 25 lost to suicide. In fact, upwards of 6% of the reports we receive on our platform each week in K12 schools are tied to suicide.
School shootings need to end, and at STOPit we are dedicated to continuing to help avoid planned attacks and violence with our approach that encourages bystanders to become upstanders. However, for every school threat avoided, we help avoid significantly more self harm incidents thanks again to upstanders using STOPit. It is clear that youth suicide is an epidemic that should emerge as an equally high priority in the wake of recent tragedies.
As such, we teamed up with Strive, a trauma-informed outpatient recovery program, to discuss how they have implemented evidence-based techniques to help individuals, schools, and communities heal from the results of trauma. As experts in this field, they have a valuable perspective on how to help avoid these events before they occur and how to implement effective programs if they ever did.
Q: Let’s start with the environment before there is a tragedy. Students often know when their friends are struggling. They recognize telltale signs and behaviors that are indicators of broader issues. How do you communicate with schools and their students about the importance of saying something, knowing this?
Strive: We point out to schools that students, who spend all their time with their peers, notice much more than the more openly troubling behaviors of their friends.
There are the obviously dangerous behaviors: John is getting into fights where he never did before. Mary is smoking (marijuana). Someone is cutting themselves (self-harm).
But there are also more subtle warning signs. It takes training and education to notice these:
– “My friend doesn’t want to do the things he used to love to do; he won’t play Lacrosse anymore, say.” Hearing this, a counselor might ask, “Why not? Is your friend under pressure not to fail? Is he being mocked? Threatened?”
– “I notice that Jennifer is only eating salads lately. And she’s dressing differently.”
– “My buddy Tom is suddenly eating alone in the cafeteria and doesn’t talk much.”
These are all behaviors which might point to depression, anxiety, or social tensions. Students, and frankly many adults, won’t pick up on them because they seem inconsequential. But to counselors, they might turn out to be important indicators, warning signs.
We don’t want to over diagnosis; but we must be aware.
The key point is, to notice these things takes education and training, for all of us, and especially for young people. Then they need an accessible way to report them, a way they will accept and use within their own value system.
Q: We all went to school, and we know the feeling at that age that it’s socially risky to “get other kids into trouble.
Strive: Yes, kids have their culture, and it seems risky to ‘tattle’, to tip off the school or parents to these issues, especially regarding the bigger problems. But we believe we can change this attitude for many young people. We try hard to reach young people about caring, and real responsibility for their friends. Couple this approach with a way of reporting behaviors anonymously, and schools and parents can begin receiving — literally — life-saving information.
Q: Can you talk a little about the importance of 24/7 monitoring; so not only in school but also after school?
Strive: Yes, a few points on this are important to understand.
In the evenings, young people can become disconnected from their social milieu even though they may think that social media substitutes. Weekends, especially Sundays, the “reentry day,” can become problematic for young people with anxiety or depression. So 24/7 family support and awareness, and if necessary, communicating back to school counselors is critical.
Young people express anxiety and depression differently than adults. While adults may become saddened or suppressed, young people are likely to become irritable, or transfer emotional pain to their bodies, as chronic pain, or headaches, or even stomach aches. Adolescents can become resistant and antagonistic as any parent knows.
We believe it’s important to have a set dinner time, preferably with the phones turned off. Behavioral issues are a disease of disconnection, so we urge families to connect and listen.
We don’t want to become helicopter parents, but we do want to keep a line in.
Q: As a service provider addressing trauma, you deal first-hand with children’s safety and that must, at times, feel daunting. How do you stay positive and what is your advice to those that are feeling overwhelmed by the statistics around self harm and suicide in our youth?
Strive: You said it! We are exposed to trauma every day, sometimes all day and it isn’t easy. But trauma is not the only phenomenon in this life. We urge people to express gratitude, with intention and with honest feeling for the wonderful people and beautiful things that do happen around us. One clinician at Strive creates a “gratitude list.” There are clinicians and clients who balance the bad by making a point of helping— a friend, a social agency. And hey, you can turn off the cable TV every so often.
We thank Strive for helping us with the discussion around this difficult topic and we appreciate the Strive Cares perspective.
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Are you, or is someone you know, struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm?
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers, and provides free and confidential emotional support to people who are in crisis, or experiencing emotional distress, 24/7. For immediate assistance, call 1-800-273-8255.