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Why it’s important to talk to your teen about suicide: advice from an expert

After a popular 18-year-old boy took his own life Sunday afternoon in Riverhead,  parents, teachers and school officials are grappling with how to help his friends and classmates — and worrying about how to recognize teens at risk. (See story.) John Anderson was a captain of the football team and is described by his friends and classmates as a guy with “a heart of gold” who “always had a smile” for everyone. His death left the community in shock.

Suicide is a major public health issue, claiming about 42,000 American lives every year. It is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of suicides per 100,000 people has in recent years increased slightly in that age group.

In the wake of such a tragedy, parents of teens find themselves in a position many find uncomfortable: talking with their kids about suicide.

“There’s no substitute for having this really difficult conversation with your kids,” said Meryl Cassidy, executive director of Response of Suffolk County, which operates a 24/7 crisis hotline and provides community education, outreach and training aimed at suicide prevention.

Talking with a teen about suicide will not put ideas in his or her head, as some people worry, Cassidy said.

“Mimicry is absolutely false,” she said. “If you don’t ask and talk directly about it, then people having thoughts won’t feel like you’re a safe person. If you don’t ask you won’t know.”

 

She said it’s important for adults and teens alike to know the warning signs of suicide:

  • talking about or making plans for suicide
  • expressing hopelessness about the future
  • displaying severe or overwhelming emotional pain or distress
  • showing worrisome behavioral cues or marked changes in behavior,
    particularly in the presence of the warning signs above, including significant:

•  withdrawal from or changing in social connections/situations
•  changes in sleep (increased or decreased)
•  anger or hostility that seems out of character or out of context
•  recent increased agitation or irritability.

“You also need people who are at risk to feel comfortable asking for help,” Cassidy said.

“As parents we’re really good at making things better, trying to reassure and fix. But with some things, in the process of doing that, we may deny or dismiss what’s going on,” Cassidy said. “Take it seriously.” She recommends parents watch a video on the subject published by Mayo Clinic.

Response of Suffolk County’s hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 631-751-7500. The organization also offers crisis counseling with an online live chat. All services are free and confidential, Cassidy said. They are also available to assist people who need help broaching the subject with friends and loved ones they’re concerned about.