Column: Suicide prevention among youth - heed warning signs, ask the question

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September is Suicide Prevention Month. But we need to talk about suicide prevention more than one month out of the year.

It affects all of us, including our children, teenagers and young adults. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24 years nationally and claims the lives of approximately 4,600 teens each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

It’s definitely a problem in Colorado. Studies done by Colorado State University in Fort Collins have shown that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teens in Colorado – following only motor vehicle accidents. Every year in the United States 250,000 youth attempt suicide.

Several factors increase the risk of suicidal behavior, such as having a history of previous suicide attempts or a family history of suicide. Other risk factors include a history of depression or other mental illness, substance abuse, a stressful life event, easy access to lethal methods and exposure to the suicidal behavior of others.  

Warning signs include talking about wanting to die or killing oneself, talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live, reckless behavior, sleeping too much or too little, substance use, looking for methods, and extreme mood swings.  

The problem with any list of suicidal warning signs is that many of the behaviors also describe typical adolescents.

I’ve been working with adolescents for years, and it’s rare to find one who gets the right amount of sleep and doesn’t have mood swings.  Teens often display reckless or impulsive behavior and they experiment with substances.  “I want to die” or “Why don’t I just kill myself?” have become colloquialisms. During adolescence the brain is still developing in the areas that are responsible for executive functioning and reason. 

This begs the question, “How do you tell if a teen is suicidal or just being an adolescent?”  It’s important to look at the severity and the combination of symptoms and if the behavior is out of the ordinary for the person. A drastic change in behavior may be a cause for concern.

The next question that comes up is what to do when you think a teen is suicidal.  Suicide is an uncomfortable topic for most and it can feel awkward to talk about it. Some people believe that talking about suicide may make an individual feel worse and increase their thoughts of suicide, but studies show the opposite is true. Remaining calm and asking the question – “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” – often allows a teenager to feel less isolated and provides an opportunity for deeper discussion. Focus your concern on the teen’s wellbeing and avoid being accusatory. Simply listen and avoid being judgmental.  Remind the individual that help is available.  

If a teenager discloses suicidal intentions, make sure to remove any means for self-harm and don’t leave the individual alone. Don’t swear to secrecy, but take action:  Help from schools and community mental-health centers are available and should be sought immediately.  Resources that are available include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and Community Reach Center’s Crisis Hotline at 303-853-3500. 

Community Reach Center also offers a youth module of Mental Health First Aid training, which teaches the signs, symptoms and behavior associated with various mental health conditions for youth ages 12 to 18 and how to assist someone experiencing a mental-health crisis. The next training is Sept. 19 in Westminster. To register for this or another MHFA training, visit www.CommunityReachCenter.org or email MHFA@CommunityReachCenter.org. 

Brandon Buenavidez, MA, NCC, is a STREET Team Therapist at Community Reach Center, a non-profit mental-health center with five outpatient offices in Adams County. Learn more at www.CommunityReachCenter.org; 303-853-3500.