Youth suicide: The conversation starts with our children
Editor’s note: In February 2017, Beacon Health Options released a white paper entitled, “We Need to Talk About Suicide,” which explores the Zero Suicide model as the best-in-class approach to suicide prevention and treatment. Since that time, Beacon has launched its own Zero Suicide campaign, which includes the sharing of personal stories regarding suicide to help initiate conversation around a topic that traditionally has been off-limits. Today’s blog post is one of those stories.
The toughest speech I have ever given in my life – and candidly to the most important audience – was not to a room of politicians or colleagues. Those speeches seem so easy now in retrospect. My toughest public-speaking moment was delivering the eulogy of my son’s very best friend, Adam (not his real name), just days after his death by suicide in 2014.
The audience? Sweet 10-year-old boys whose first experience with loss was deeply complicated by the stigma, fear and shame associated with death by suicide. Some parents talked openly about suicide in the months following Adam’s death. Others couldn’t bring themselves to discuss the truth. Our community was shaken, and honestly many hoped that the boys would just stop asking questions about why their friend took his life. We didn’t have answers ourselves. How could we possibly help them understand?
Not in my backyard
I found that there were two common reactions when people heard how Adam died. The first was total shock. How could a 10-year-old commit suicide? The second reaction, however, was startlingly eye-opening for me as a mental health professional. After the shock wore off, many people expressed what almost appeared to be relief. Relief that there was no car accident, no fall, no scary pediatric illness – because those things could happen to their child too.
But suicide? No way. Surely this could not happen to their child or to children in their community. I was taken aback by this response until I realized just how little we speak about suicide in our communities and our schools, and how little people know about the prevalence concerning pediatric suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the second leading cause of death in children aged 10-14 and 15-24 in 2014. In fact, suicide rates for girls ages 10-14 more than tripled over the past 15 years. Yet despite these data, deaths like Adam’s catch our communities off guard and leave us searching for ways to respond.
Surely this could not happen to their child or to children in their community. I was taken aback by this response until I realized just how little we speak about suicide in our communities and our schools, and how little people know about the prevalence concerning pediatric suicide.
A difficult honesty but a lifesaving one
We can’t simply hope that our children do not ask tough questions about mental health; we need to insist that it be included in our health education programs and other dialogues, just as we talk to them about the importance of wearing their seatbelts or saying no to drugs. Perhaps if we speak more about mental health in general, then we could increase awareness about not only suicide and its warning signs, but about the symptoms of childhood depression as well. These symptoms include frequent somatic complaints like those that sent Adam home from school numerous times in the weeks prior to his death.
Perhaps the pediatrician who saw Adam just before he died would have been better equipped to screen Adam for depression and signs of suicidality if these topics were widely discussed and the facts widely known. And perhaps I would not have stopped myself from suggesting to Adam’s dad that his physical complaints could be due to behavioral health reasons – for fear of offending him – when we spoke the morning before Adam’s death. It’s too late for that suggestion to save Adam, but stating it now could save another child.
I wish the loss of Adam was not a part of my son’s narrative about his childhood, but it is a part of who he is and who I am as his mom. It forced behavioral health issues to the forefront of lives, and we talk openly and honestly about Adam regularly. I tell Adam’s story to anyone who will listen in hopes that it will help save a life by reducing the stigma and shame that our 10-year-old boys learned about way too early. This is how I honor Adam’s life.