Throughout the month of March, our nation recognizes Self-Injury Awareness Month. Self-harm is an increasingly imperative topic that our society must acknowledge – especially since many routines are altered; activities are paused; and social time with friends and loved ones is limited. The sad truth is that, since the start of the pandemic, suicide completions amongst America’s youth have increased. The best way to reduce stigma and increase awareness is to simply talk about it. So, that’s what we did with South Bay’s assistant director of Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative services, Sara F. Read as Sara discusses suicide and the pandemic’s impact on our nation’s youth.
How has the pandemic impacted youth who are at risk?
I think youth are struggling to access the support they need on a consistent basis. There’s a lot of value in doing virtual lessons, but it lacks that personal piece. Youth don’t have the access to their friends or peer networks they once did. In turn, there’s an increase in social media usage. Having more access to social media and having to rely on it as their form of socialization has been unhealthy for a lot of youth, and it has demonstrated an increase in some risk-taking behaviors.
Also, some youth may have to take on a caretaker role for younger siblings, as their parents or guardians could be stretched thin among multiple family members and their job. I think that the ability to provide attention to your child while you’re trying to maintain your home, earn an income and care for other children is difficult on so many people. The quality of attention that kids are receiving isn’t what it was – but no one can be blamed for this. This is uncharted territory. I think guardians are potentially not as aware of how the pandemic impacts kids because we often think of how resilient children are. Additionally, they’re spread thin or they may be struggling with their own mental health, so it’s possible that they’re just not recognizing potential personality changes or their children’s loss of interest in things they used to love.
What are the warning signs of a young person experiencing suicidal thoughts?
This is a challenging question because it really vacillates, and sometimes there are no warning signs. I think the bigger warning signs are increased isolation and behavioral changes – which is already a challenge during a pandemic. Generally in kids, the signs are much more covert than overt.
What should a person do if someone they know tells them they’re thinking about suicide?
Give them resources. Alert close contacts. Validate that their pain and suffering is real without encouraging them to act upon their thoughts. With kids, when they express suicidal ideation, a lot of adults can be dismissive of that. Essentially, that’s being dismissive of their pain and suffering – while it’s very real to them. We want them to know that they are heard; they are not alone; and they have support. Let them know that they’re entitled to feel those feelings. At South Bay, our work is to let kids know that suicide is not the answer and that we will help them feel better. We work with them until they feel hopeful and worthy. We are there to help children find happier, healthier lives for themselves.
How can we reduce stigma?
That’s the age-old question. In my opinion, it’s to give voice to it and normalize that it is not an uncommon feeling. A significant percentage of people have had a feeling of ending their life or thought about it at some point. I don’t mean they had a plan – I mean they’ve thought about it. We never talk about those things, and it’s important that we do so we can remove the shame associated with it. When someone does complete suicide, it’s OK to say they’ve completed suicide. Don’t dance around it. Talk about it.
You’ll notice I never say “commited suicide.” I say “completed suicide” or “died by suicide.” There’s been a huge paradigm shift in the language that we use when talking about suicide. “Committed” is associated with crime, and it is not a crime to attempt to end one’s life. So, changing the language we use when talking about suicide is important to end that stigma and shame.
We had so much to discuss with Sara that we are making her Q&A a two-part series. Later in the month, we will release Part 2 of our chat, where Sara breaks down how South Bay clinicians navigate the topic of suicide with their clients.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, our team of certified staff members and clinicians want to help. Through our mental health counseling services, we can assist those experiencing hardships find positive solutions. For more information, contact us at 508-427-5362 or click here.
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