On December 3, 2020, an 11-year old student in California took his life during a zoom class in his home. And just last month, another 11- year old boy involved in the BMX racing community took his life as well.
As a parent, and as a survivor of suicide loss myself, my heart aches for the surviving families and the loss of these young men.
As a therapist, my heart hurts as well.
While it is common to experience thoughts of suicide, it is also something that should never be brushed aside.
As therapists, we get to see a behind the scenes view of how kids are really feeling. We ask the hard questions as part of our duty to help keep our clients safe, and we talk about preventing suicide. We assess the different levels of risk and severity when it comes to suicidal ideations and attempts, and we know that thoughts of suicide are more common than people would believe. Above all, we believe that help exists for those who are suffering.
When I read the article this morning of the loss of the second young boy who took his life, I felt compelled to write an open letter to parents, educators, friends and families whose children are struggling:
Dear parents, educators, support staff, care providers, families, and friends:
Please know that this year has been exceptional for us all. We all feel the impact of the changes in our society, our fears for our health, our disruption of our normal, and the grief and loss through it all. Please know that you and yours are not alone. Please know that I’m speaking to everyone when I say there are people who need you here and would be devastated to have you gone. Please know that help is available and that you can, and will, get through this. Please know that if you or your loved one is struggling, this does not have to be the end.
And above all, please know that just because your child is young does not mean they are not capable of having suicidal thoughts or of ending their life. All children can feel, and therefore the distress is not exclusive to any level of development or age.
The mental health of children is all too often overlooked and their negative behaviors or “cries for help” are often seen as attention-seeking or irrational. Sometimes people think children are not capable of big “adult feelings” or that when they express something big that it is just a phase. This letter is here to shake up that notion and help you see that sometimes they need to be taken more seriously– especially during this exceptionally challenging year.
They say children are masters of the present, and while that can work to their advantage to enjoy the simple things in life, if their present is a time of despair, it can prove fatal. Research shows that in the US, suicide remains the SECOND leading cause of death for individuals ages ten to thirty-four.
Children and teens often run a higher risk for lethal consequences when experiencing suicidal thoughts. Their brains are still developing and as a result often lack the necessary tools and functioning to think critically and to consider future impacts of their decisions.
It is our job as parents, educators, care providers, family, and friends, to be there to notice in our children when something is wrong, and to support them in finding alternative solutions to their pain.
I see the families that are doing their absolute best, but are still struggling. I see the parents who are experiencing their own mental health deteriorating and feel the loss of connection with their children as a result. I see the increase in substance abuse and the attempts to mitigate the overwhelm we all are feeling during this pandemic. I see the parents who feel at their wits end not sure what else they can do to help their child.
I see the pain. I see the hurt. I see the helplessness.
What our children see is a loss of safety and security. They need us as their support system to provide them with stability, love and hope. They need us to ask if they are okay and to truly listen to their reply. They need us to spend quality time with them. They need us to read between the lines and to listen to our gut when it tells us something feels off. They need us to keep them safe.
These are the steps we need to take as parents to help our children make it through.
Take steps to reduce access to lethal measures.
Our children need us to take additional measures to limit access to lethal measures EVEN IF WE THINK THEY ARE DOING WELL because let’s face it, moods change in an instant.
My intent is to not shame anyone who has lost a loved one for not doing enough to keep them safe. As a survivor of suicide loss myself, I know that sometimes when there is a will, the individual in pain will find a way. I also know that sometimes even someone who is seemingly okay can have a sudden shift and everything can change in an instant. In knowing this, I am still urging families to be mindful of the steps they can take to limit access to lethal measures to REDUCE THE RISK and possibly save a life.
Making lethal items more difficult to obtain puts time and space between when a feeling is felt and when action is taken to escape the feeling. Simply put, limiting access buys time and that itself can make a difference.
Guns and other lethal weapons should always be locked and stored out of access to children. Placing them up high, or hidden is not enough and many children are clever enough to know where they are even when the parents think they do not. They need to be stored in a locked box or safe, out of sight, and with the combination as a unique pass-code that the child would not know.
Even if your child knows how to shoot and handle guns safely, you can help keep them safe by limiting their access to the guns to only when they have your supervision. And if you suspect your loved one may be a risk to themselves or others, consider removing the weapon from your home entirely–even if it is temporary.
You also want to be talking with family and friends about how they store their weapons as children are clever enough to know where the unlocked gun is, even if it isn’t in your own home.
Ropes, leashes, belts, extension cords, and long chains should be stored out of access as well if you feel concerned that your loved one may be considering suicide. It is sometimes the simplest item that was within reach that ends up proving lethal.
Medications and poisonous substances can be stored in a lock box or removed from the home. Parents and care providers should be aware that it is possible for individuals to slowly hoard pills to be used for a later date, so any missing medications are a cause for concern.
Sharp objects such as scissors, razors, pencil sharpeners (disassembled), and knives can be locked or stored away as well.
Monitor your children and don’t automatically assume they are okay.
I understand these are trying times, and for many families, staying home to monitor our children while they attend school remotely, simply is not an option. So many families are relying on their older children, friends, or family for help, so the next best step is to keep the lines of communication open.
While many children are doing surprisingly well through the pandemic, others are simply not. The best way to find out is to ask and to give your full attention to their response.
There is a stigma around talking about suicide that people believe that if you bring it up, someone is more likely to end their life by suicide, but that notion is false.
Research shows that talking to someone about suicide instead reduces their risk significantly. This is why hotlines and warmlines work. The act of sharing about the pain eases the overwhelm, helps foster connection, and allows space for help to begin working.
The National Suicide Hotline is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week and is staffed with people who are there to listen and help at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or you can text “HOME” to 741741 at any time.
Locally, in Fresno County, we have the Exodus Recovery Center (559) 453-1008 that can provide crisis evaluations and linkage to inpatient care if needed.
You can also call 911 or visit a local hospital if someone is a risk to self or others and need immediate assistance.
Ask your children about how they are feeling.
Don’t be afraid to ask your children if they have felt hopeless, and to even ask explicitly, if they have ever thought about ending their life. If they have not, odds are they will just say no and look at you like you are crazy, but if they have, wouldn’t it be better knowing so that you can help them find a way to survive instead? While your at it, ask if they are worried about any of their friends with these feelings too. You might save someone else’s child.
Educate your child about mental health, about feelings, and let them know that feelings come and go and are there to be felt. Let them know they don’t have to go through them alone and that even if they are feeling something terrible, that there are ways to get through. Let them know you care and that regardless of circumstance, you need them here in your world. Let them know that even if they don’t tell you, that talking about it to anyone is better than holding it all inside. Give them the numbers for crisis hotlines, even if it is under the premise of “in case any of your friends need this.”
The National Suicide Hotline is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week and is staffed with people who are there to listen and help at 1-800-273-TALK or you can text “HOME” to 741741 at any time.
Know the warning signs and watch for them.
It is our job to watch for signs that our children are feeling off.
I can’t tell you enough how many children I’ve worked with who have had thoughts of suicide or survived an attempt to say “I told them, but no one listened.” We have to do better.
Some warning signs and risks include:
Changes in eating/sleeping habits
Loss of a friend, family member, or classmate to suicide
Negative perception of the world, hopelessness, and dread
Giving away of personal items
Saying goodbye, making arrangements for pets or belongings, or making amends
Actual statements of suicidal thoughts, jokes about suicide, or comments such as “I wish I was dead,” “I wish I was never born,” “Everyone would be better off without me,” “Nobody loves me,” “What would happen if I died?” etc. Be sure to check their social media as that is often where these statements are shared.
Dropping grades, changes in social behaviors, isolation and no longer enjoying what they normally do
Increased substance abuse or risky behaviors
Mood swings, irritability, shutting down, or tearfulness
Pre-existing mental health issues or family history of mental health issues
Internet searches about ways to end their life or searching for lethal measures
Following or searching for videos/posts on social media related to self-harm, suicide, or depression
Increased feelings of being alone/isolated from bullying, being in trouble, or the quarantine
Loss of a loved one
Being in unbearable pain or in a situation that feels there is no positive outcome for
Struggling with sexuality or identity issues
Self-harming and disordered eating
Support your children in expanding their support system and teach healthy ways to cope with stress.
I understand with COVID-19 there are barriers to connecting with our support systems, but it is our job to find ways to keep our children and families connected even during these trying times. Isolation breeds despair and it can be insidious as it works its way into becoming unbearable. Make plans for your children even if it is a socially distanced or virtual activity. Let them know you are trying and that you care.
Find families who share your same values or practices and determine a safe way to engage with them to increase the people within your support system.
Sometimes giving your child some time away to stay at a grandparent or family friend’s home gives children and teens enough of a feeling of freedom to help relieve the burden of their overwhelm of life at home. Truth is, we all need a break sometime, kids included.
Encourage your children to engage in healthy coping skills such as artwork, journaling, music, exercise, or other hobbies that support their emotional and physical health. Teach healthy eating, good sleep hygiene, and support their expression of emotions.
Remember that you are their biggest role model and that the ways you are coping with stress will likely be mirrored in them. Sometimes saying, “I’m feeling overwhelmed today, let’s go for a walk” might just have a bigger impact than you’d think.
Take action to get them the help they need.
If you have read this far, you have enough knowledge to take the first steps. But your job isn’t to do it alone.
Mental health support is available in many ways through local therapists, school supports, crisis centers, hotlines, warmlines, and even in the form of moral support from friends and family.
It is up to you to start the conversation AND to keep it going.
If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of death or suicide, please don’t try to handle it all on your own and instead seek professional help. You are loved, you are needed, and you matter.
Tailwinds Therapy is located in Clovis, California and offers in person and online therapy services for children, teens, and adults struggling with anxiety, depression, and trauma. Let us help you move forward through these difficult times.
Call Caitlin today at 559-387-4367 or click here to learn more about our services.
Not local, but still need help? Search online for a therapist in your area here: Psychology Today
To learn other ways to help support your mental health during the pandemic, click here.
Other Helpful Websites and Resources:
• National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
• Crisis Textline: Text CONNECT to 741741
Local Resources (Fresno/Clovis):
• Exodus Recovery Crisis Center: (559) 453-1008
• Sanctuary Youth Shelter: (559) 498-8543
• Domestic Violence Help via Marjaree Mason Center: (559) 237-4706
• Clovis Community Hospital: 911 or (559) 324-4000
• Clovis Police Department: 911 or (559) 324-2800