According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in any given month about 4,000 Americans will commit suicide. Young people are particularly vulnerable. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-34. A new study from the University of Florida finds that suicide rates among young people are higher than previously reported, and that suicide among young women is much higher than previously thought.
The University of Florida researchers used a new epidemiological method called age-period-cohort analysis. It allowed the researchers to look at suicide rates within a particular time frame and determine whether suicide rates were increasing over certain eras. They found after the year 1995, there’s been a steady increase in younger generations committing suicides among both young men and women.
September is suicide awareness month and groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness are getting the word out about warning signs among children. Dr. Anna Shustack is a licensed clinical social worker and serves on the Board of Directors at NAMI. Patricia Timmerman-Barbosa DeSilva is the Executive Director of Advocate2Create and a licensed mental health counselor. They spoke with Luis Hernandez about warning signs to look out for and how parents can approach such a sensitive topic with their loved ones.
WLRN: Mrs. DeSilva, you talk to survivors, and these are people who are related to those who do commit suicide. What do they tell you about what they've learned from their experiences?
DeSilva: Survivors of suicide - which is an interesting name, because you always think it's a person who has attempted suicide, but 'survivors' in the grief world refers to people surviving the loss of a loved one. And the word surviving is really imperative because you learn to exist. Your time is very different from those around you. It feels like it just happened yesterday, and a lot of the things that I hear a lot, "Now I see everything that I didn't see before, now I can see the blanks there in their eyes that I didn't see before."
When we talk about depression, and I say depression is very different because just like different kinds of cancers they do different things to your body. Depression is very similar in that there are some that are constant, and people learn to live with it, and there are some that go peak and go down and up and down. And one of the things that I hear a lot from parents or siblings or spouses is, "I see their sadness, and now I have a really difficult time knowing when they were truly happy or if they had a mask on for us."
Dr. Shustack, where do you start with parents? How do you start helping them to even begin the process of speaking with their children about suicide?
Dr. Shustack: Well, I mean, it depends if you're talking one-on-one -let's say counselor, therapist to parents - you would want to have them open up about what they see going on so that you could share with them what you see as maybe problematic. But I'm seeing it also as a question of allying with teachers. For example, (at) NAMI we're about to start a program called "ending the silence" in the high schools for students where parents and teachers will work together on identifying students who may be at risk and trying to reach out to those kids. The most important thing that can help a child is that their parents can take them for the therapeutic help that they need.
That really can't be almost anybody else but the parent. Because the parents will have an active role in making sure that's done. So you need to have trust and there needs to be less fear about bringing this up in the open. (Suicide) is not contagious because you talk about it.
Dr. Shustack, how do you tell if somebody is having a really bad day or if there's something seriously going wrong?
I think ongoing behavior and behavior that gets more exaggerated and more problematic. And I also think that parents need to validate their child and their child's experience as opposed to sort of doing the "pull up your bootstraps" - you know, you have a happy life and you should just go on with it and get on with it. You have to validate, and from doing that you will have a more honest conversation and be able to tell whether the level of depression is truly a level requiring professional help.
If you or someone you know needs help, there's a number of available free resources for support. You can always text 741741 to go to www.crisistextline.org to speak with a trained crisis counselor. Or you can call into the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. If you're seeking support groups in Miami-Dade and Broward, you can go to the Florida Initative for Suicide Prevention: https://fisponline.org.