How you can help prevent suicide in youth - opinion

Emerging data suggest that depression and suicide concerns have increased among adolescents and young adults ages 12 to 21 because of COVID-19.

Mental health first aid, illustrative  (photo credit: CLAUDIO SCHWARZ/UNSPLASH)
Mental health first aid, illustrative

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a devastating toll – especially on our youth. Emerging data suggest that depression and suicide concerns have increased among adolescents and young adults ages 12 to 21.

Suicide – especially youth suicide – can be a very difficult topic to navigate and discuss. For that reason having such conversations are so much more important. Talking about suicide helps bring it to the forefront. It helps youth and adults alike recognize and accept that suicide is not a dirty word.

Contrary to popular belief, talking about suicide does not encourage or lead someone to take action. Nobody gets hurt from having the conversation. Rather, it often allows the adolescent or young adult to give voice to their fight – to the ongoing struggle. It gives them an audience for which they were in such need.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States reports suicide is the third-leading cause of death for children aged 10-14. It’s vital that as a member of the human race, you understand the signs and symptoms a young person considering suicide may show and know how you can use your skills to help. Having open dialogue with youth and young adults surrounding suicide and knowing how to support a young person in a crisis can help reduce some of these risks.

A young person who is contemplating suicide may show no signs or multiple signs. Keep the following warning signs in mind:

Mental health [illustrative] (credit: PIXABAY)Mental health [illustrative] (credit: PIXABAY)

1. Threatening to hurt or kill themselves; 

2. Experiencing rage or anger, or seeking revenge; 

3. Withdrawing from friends, family or society; 

4. Expressing feelings of hopelessness; 

5. Talking, drawing or writing about death, dying or suicide (including in schoolwork, creative writing and artwork); 

6. Giving away their prized possessions.

Undiagnosed, untreated or under-treated depression, bullying, experiencing a traumatic event, and struggling with sexual orientation are just a few risk factors that may be associated with suicide among youth and young adults. However, we are a resilient people and there are protective factors that can contribute to our resiliency that should be further built upon.

These factors include: Family and social supports; healthy self-esteem; consistent routines; economic security; good problem-solving skills.

All of the above will help protect a young person from experiencing a mental health or substance-use crisis or challenge. The support of family members or other caregivers along with the community of school, synagogue and youth movement can be crucial to assist in stopping a young person who’s considering suicide from moving forward with it.

As a Mental Health First Aider (and if you’re not one we encourage you to be trained and be one), you are another important protective factor! You can be an initial support resource for a youth experiencing a crisis, and it’s important to know how to handle the situation. Here are some tips from the Youth Mental Health First Aid curriculum:

1. Ask the young person directly if they are having thoughts of suicide or thinking about killing themselves. Appearing confident in the face of the suicide crisis can be reassuring for the young person. It’s important to ask the question without dread or expressing any negative judgment.

2. Always seek professional help when a young person is exhibiting suicidal ideation. This may mean taking them to the emergency department of a hospital, a community mental health center or a doctor’s office.

3. Express empathy for the young person and what they are going through. Give them the opportunity to talk about their feelings. Listen non-judgmentally and talk about some of the specific problems they face. The young person may get great relief from talking about their experiences.

4. Clearly state that thoughts of suicide are common, and that help is available to discuss these thoughts. This may instill a sense of hope. Offer emotional support and hope of a more positive future in whatever form the young person will accept.

5. Do not leave a young person who is experiencing a crisis alone. People rarely act on suicidal thoughts with other people present.

Suicidal thoughts are serious and should always be followed up with professional help and resources. Your safety and the youth’s safety are the top priority. Following a crisis, you can also seek help to talk about your feelings and do some self-care.

Talking about youth suicide isn’t easy, but you can #MakeTheDifference for a young person by:

Knowing the warning signs, having resources readily available and being there for someone who’s experiencing a crisis.

If you or someone you care about feels overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression or anxiety, or want to harm yourself or others, please call 101.You can also contact the ERAN suicide hotline at 1201.

The writer is chairman and founder of Mental Health First Aid Israel.