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Suicide rates are rising in the U.S., specifically among kids between the ages of 10 and 14, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Perceived causes range from the increased use of cell phones and social media, to major transitions or life events like family stress, family history or substance use.
While parents might want to point to one cause, Children's Hospital Colorado psychologist Justin Michener, PhD says it's not that simple.
"It's hard to identify any one reason or factor," he says. "Every case is individualized and entirely depends on the child." Preventing suicide isn't a "one-size-fits-all" solution, and parents should acknowledge their child's uniqueness when broaching the topic.
The most important thing parents can do is talk to their kids. Like sex, drugs, bullying or any other topic facing teens, suicide is fraught with discomfort and stigma. Misinformation abounds — which makes it that much more crucial to discuss.
Leverage TV shows and media coverage of the topic to start a conversation. Children's Colorado psychologist Emily Laux, PsyD recommends an indirect approach: "Something like, 'Hey, I read an article about this. What do you think?'"
"A conversation is not going to make a kid depressed or suicidal," says Dr. Michener. In fact, openly discussing suicide with teens can mitigate the effects of a suicide in a community, since "copycat" suicides are often fueled by glamorization and misconception.
Anything a child interprets as judgement or stigma means they'll shut down and not want to talk about it again. "If a kid does express those thoughts, stay calm," says Dr. Laux. "Take it seriously and listen, but as much as possible, contain your own emotional reaction. Kids are going to be hypersensitive to your perception of it, and a lot of kids will perceive a parent's fearful reaction as anger — which enhances the secrecy around it."
Don't try to fix it, Dr. Laux says. Instead, hear teens out, be supportive and seek professional help. Stay vigilant of any patterns, mood changes, loss of hope about the future or shifts in grades or sports performance. Dr. Laux encourages parents to trust their parental instincts if their child seems different. Call the suicide prevention hotline, a pediatrician or Children's Colorado; professionals can direct you to the appropriate help. If you think there's an imminent danger, emergency departments can provide psychiatric services.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline | 800-273-8255
Colorado Crisis Line | 844-493-8255
Children's Colorado Pediatric Mental Health Institute | 720-777-6200