Op-Ed: Suicide & Teens | The Conversation Hits Home

"I wasn’t alone. From South Pasadena High School, I can think of six peers who I had interacted with who not only experienced suicidal ideation, but who acted on those thoughts and have sadly passed since I graduated in 2015."

South Pasadena News | Op-Ed - Communication is crucial.

South Pasadena is home. It has been my home for 26 years. Even as I pursue my doctorate in Clinical Psychology in New York, I still reminisce about playing on the Morton Fig outside the library, marching in the Festival of Balloons every July, and riding my bike to every corner of our beautiful city.

I also remember the times I felt hopeless, hid in my room, and wondered whether life was worth living.

I wasn’t alone. From South Pasadena High School, I can think of six peers who I had interacted with who not only experienced suicidal ideation, but who acted on those thoughts and have sadly passed since I graduated in 2015.

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On a larger scale, nearly 11% of individuals aged 18-25 report serious thoughts about suicide while 1-2% report a suicide attempt, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The numbers become even more concerning for high school students: nearly 20% report serious thoughts about suicide while 9% report suicide attempts. That could mean nearly 350 students at South Pasadena High School alone have thoughts about suicide.

Just as I have come out the other side stronger and healthier, so can the struggling youth in our community.

Parents Can Help Prevent Suicide
This article is meant to provide South Pasadena parents with resources to begin navigating the taboo topic of suicide. We have the tools to prevent further senseless loss by suicide in our community. It begins with education, and then action.

Risk Factors for Suicide

In teenagers, some common risk factors include:

  • Previous suicide attempts
  • History of mental illness; especially depression, anxiety, or substance abuse
  • Current or previous history of adverse childhood experiences: abuse, neglect, household dysfunction
  • Aggressive or impulsive tendencies
  • A family or loved one’s history of suicide
  • Social conflict or bullying
  • Romantic breakups
  • Social isolation

The above risk factors are not exhaustive; check out the CDC’s website for more common risk factors.

Identifying Suicidality

The American Association of Suicidality developed a mnemonic to help identify key markers of suicidality: “Is path warm?”

  • Ideation – Talking about or threatening to harm or kill oneself; looking for ways to kill oneself; talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide
  • Substance abuse – Increased substance use
  • Purposelessness
  • Anxiety – Worry, fear, agitation, or changes in sleep pattern
  • Trapped – Feeling like there is no way out of a bad situation
  • Hopelessness
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and society
  • Anger
  • Recklessness
  • Mood changes

Other common signs of suicidality may include:

  • Giving away belongings or getting affairs in order
  • Engaging in risky or self-destructive behaviors, such as driving recklessly
  • Saying goodbye to people as if they won’t be seen again
  • Developing personality changes, particularly in combination with any of the above signs
  • Obtaining means to end their life, such as stockpiling pills

Supporting Your Struggling Child

If your child is struggling with their mental health, you have the power to help them. Keep the channels of communication open and let your child know that you’re always available to talk.

Empathize and validate feelings. “What you’re going through right now is so tough.” Thank your child for trusting you. Avoid minimizing or dismissing feelings. Avoid saying things like, “You are overreacting” or “Just be positive.” Instead ask, “How can I support you?”

Do not hesitate to ask your child whether they’re feeling changes in their mood or having suicidal thoughts. It is a myth that asking directly about suicide increases the risk of suicide, or “plants the idea” for suicide. In fact, it offers an opportunity for support and lets your child know that you care enough to have this talk.

One way that you can talk about suicide is: “I understand that you’re dealing with a lot right now. Has it ever gotten so hard that you feel like ending your life?” If your child indicates in any way that they have been thinking about suicide, take them seriously. Provide empathy and love.

If your child is having passive suicidal ideation but has no intent or plan to act on these thoughts, continue supporting your child and consider taking your child to therapy. It takes a village. If your child has active intent or plans to die by suicide, remain calm and empathetic and take your child to the nearest psychiatric hospital or emergency department to receive more intensive treatment.

Your Communication Skills and Mental Health Matter

If you struggle with having open discussions about emotions, mental health, and suicidality, consider attending parenting workshops or going to individual or family therapy to build these skills. Receiving individual therapy can help you improve your own mental health, which will allow you to be a better source of emotional support for your child.

Supporting Your Child Through a Loss by Suicide

Check out this amazing handbook by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that discusses children, teens, suicide, and how to support your child after someone they knew died by suicide.

Closing Remarks

Experiencing suicidality is common among youths, but parental intervention can save their lives. Spend some time reading through the materials presented here and elsewhere. Talk about suicide and mental health with other parents and obtain different perspectives. Having open discussions takes away the taboo of this painful, but prevalent subject. Educating yourself can grant you the knowledge and skills to potentially intervene at the right time and save your child’s life.

I believe in South Pasadena, and I believe that our community is brave enough to make a difference in our youth’s lives. I hope this article and future public resources can aid in this change. I also look forward to the day when I finish my studies and I return home to be an even greater part of that change.