MONTVILLE, NJ – Every day, there are approximately 16 youth suicides in the United States.
This sobering statistic was presented to residents at a seminar called “Raising Resilient Teens in Challenging Times,” presented at the Senior House Feb. 28 through a grant from the Montville Rotary and presented by Veronica Tullo’s H.E.A.R.T. foundation, a non-profit aimed at increasing awareness of teen suicide and depression.
Dawn Doherty, Executive Director for the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (SPTS), and Mary Vineis, who is the Morris County Traumatic Loss Coalition Coordinator, presented even more sobering numbers.
“Youth suicide is now the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24, and the third leading cause in New Jersey,” Doherty said. “The rate of suicide has increased 20%, from 3.2 suicides out of every 100,000 children in 2002, to 5.5 in 2015 in New Jersey. In the U.S., more than 6,100 youth are taking their lives every year.”
Vineis said part of teens’ problem is that decision making is performed by emotions and feelings, since the brain is not fully formed until a person is 25 years of age.
“They don’t have the history to know that things change, and they live in the here and now,” Vineis said.
Challenges to parenting include the reality of terrorism, the violence in video games, and the competitive climate presented on social media.
“Facebook can really make you jealous,” she said. “Cyber space is a fantasy land.”
One in five adolescents will suffer from a mental health disorder, Vineis said, but it takes about ten years to get help.
“It’s important to talk to our kids about mental health,” Vineis said.
This includes modeling coping skills, such as how you deal with stress she said. Make your lessons age-appropriate and keep an “open door” of communication, Doherty added.
“Who are they going to get in touch to talk to if they need anything?” Doherty said, is an appropriate and helpful question for your child. A trusted adult – who may not be you – is important, she said.
Doherty encouraged parents to talk to their children about suicide, especially during a car ride.
“Be conversational, be honest, talk about your feelings about stress, and ask them if they’ve thought about suicide,” she said. “Be direct and listen to your child.”
Doherty said if parents are worried about the answers they hear, ask more questions, and if they’re still worried, to call counselors at the school, a local mental health professional, or local agencies. (The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 800-273-8255) She also recommended the 2nd Floor Youth Helpline, 2ndFloor.org or 888-222-2228.
“It does not need to be crisis [level] in order to make that call,” she said.
Some think that talking about suicide plants the idea in teens, but this is not so, Vineis said. She said a youth mentioned to her once that he might say something just to see how the parent will react, and then after seeing that response, it will decide if he tells anything else.
“Take it as a door opening and keep talking,” she said.
She also said threats of suicide are not just a way to “get attention,” and that every threat should be taken seriously.
“There’s not just one thing that puts people at risk for suicide,” Vineis said.
Factors in suicide risk include genetics (history of depression or suicide), idolizing those who have taken their life and history or presence of mental illness. Warning signs of suicide include sharing feelings of worthlessness, giving away possessions, changing behaviors like suddenly sleeping very late or becoming disheveled, or a depressed, quiet child who suddenly, radically perks up.
So how to protect kids from the risk?
The pair talked about making a support system for kids by forming a relationship with a trusted adult and connection to a house of worship, school, or community. Teaching positive coping skills, such as knowing how to deal with stress and taking care of ourselves as parents so that children can see it. Teaching your children to ask for help – as the parent should also do. Listening to your children – don’t just jump in and fix problems or situations. Being alert to what’s going on with teens in your community by asking about rumors or gossip and monitoring the internet. Being prepared to take action based on what you hear. Monitoring behavior, especially alcohol use.
“Ask, ‘tell me more,’ and kids will open up,” Doherty said. “You may have a pediatrician picked out, or an orthopedist if your child breaks an arm, but what about a mental health professional? You can’t overreact.”
Tullo wishes to bring a wellness summit held by SPTS to Morris County because Morris County has the highest rate of teen suicide in the state, Veronica’s mother Lucy stated. Veronica would like to make her Songs from the HEART fundraiser an annual event in September, which is suicide awareness month, Lucy said. Veronica presented a check for $2,500, the proceeds from the fundraiser last October, to Doherty, to be used for the summit.
The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide was founded in 2005 by two fathers who lost children to suicide. It is about education and awareness, Doherty said. Their goal is to decrease stigma and “make it OK for teens not to be OK,” she said.
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