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With Mental Health Emergencies Rising, How To Identify Risk Factors For Suicide In Children & Adolescents

Depressed preteen girl sitting in armchair at home
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Asking a young person directly if they're having thoughts of suicide can be difficult, but it's important to have a direct conversation when discussing possible thoughts of suicide.

Between April and October of 2020, emergency departments across the nation saw a rise of visits from children for mental health needs, according to the CDC. Although there are no reported numbers of suicides in this population yet for 2020, the pandemic has impacted the ongoing children’s mental health crisis.

Children’s Wisconsin child and family therapist Alecia Corbett says common risk factors for child and adolescent suicide are drug and alcohol use, constant bullying in school and loss of a friend or family member — either to suicide or the loss of the relationship from some other circumstance.

For young people, she says, their brains are not yet fully formed and have not experienced the same amount of time as adults, meaning that events or choices that seem insignificant for adults can be incredibly stressful.

“The whole, like, frontal lobe is not fully there yet and so when they’re contemplating decisions, they’re working on the information that they have but the information that they have may not be perceived like accurately as we look at things as adults,” Corbett explains.

For everyone, the pandemic has been a time of isolation, but Corbett says that online school has had mixed results for students. While some have struggled lack of socialization, others have thrived without the anxiety they experienced daily while attending school in-person. All of her clients, she says, have shared with her how the pandemic has been creating insecurity when it came to thinking about the future.

“The unknown was really a big thing that came up in talking to my clients that like, 'When is this going to end? When is this going to be over? When can I go back to school? When can I go back to my real life?,'” she says.

One concern Corbett has for students attending online school is the amount of time they’re spending inside. Young people she talked to describe staying inside for weeks at a time because there was nothing forcing them to go outside. She says the human body is just not designed to handle that much time inside. With many clients, Corbett says she develops goals of going outside a certain number of times every week and makes sure they are using that time to stay active.

When talking with parents, Corbett recommends finding a scheduled time to spend together every day now that many families are home together more often. She says lunch can be a great time to be together and check-in.

“Many parents are very in tune to what’s happening with their children even though sometimes the kids try to hide it. So, having those opportunities to have really good communication and observation of them are very important,” notes Corbett.

Observation can be key, she says, because often young people contemplating suicide will exhibit large changes in behavior before attempting to end their life. Corbett uses the acronym FACT to remember feelings, actions, changes, threats as signs a child will exhibit if they’re thinking about suicide.

This can range from sudden changes in performance at school, large outbursts of anger or even a shift to an incredibly positive tone. Corbett says thoughts of suicide can be extremely stressful and making a decision to go through with it can make a young person feel like a weight has been lifted off their shoulder.

Corbett says if parents are concerned their child might be having thoughts of suicide, they should start by having a conversation.

“Asking that question very directly, although can be difficult for people in any sort of way, it is very important to be able to ask the question: ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ versus ‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself?’ because if [a child] sees this as a way out, you’re not going to look at this as hurting yourself,” she says.

To prevent acting on thoughts of suicide, Corbett says an important step to take is to eliminate the access to the means by which they will kill themselves. She explains, “The number one way that they’re looking at, in terms of suicide reduction, is means restriction.” Whether that is a gun, overdosing on prescription drugs or hanging themselves, she says make sure that those items are properly stored and locked away.

If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of suicide call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Milwaukee County Children’s Mobile Crisis at 414-257-7621 or visit Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee.

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