Talking About Teen Suicide
Westminster public health professor shares information to help parents
by Michelle Barber Lyhnakis (MPC ’06)
The youth-suicide rate has tripled in Utah since 2007, making suicide the leading cause of death for Utah kids ages 11–17. “There are a lot of theories about why the numbers in Utah have increased,” says Dr. Sharon Talboys, professor of public health at Westminster College. “Health officials are looking into multiple factors, including altitude and gun ownership.”
While Utah is getting a lot of attention for its high youth-suicide rates, the problem is growing nationally. According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 10–24. Approximately 4,600 lives are lost each year. Though the topic of suicide may be an uncomfortable and painful one to think about, it is important for parents to be familiar with signs to watch for and ways to talk to their children.
Data reveal that males are more likely than females to die from suicide. “Boys typically turn to more lethal methods than girls, but girls report suicidal thoughts more often,” Sharon explains. “Boys often turn to firearms, where girls try overdosing on drugs or cutting.” Because of this, Sharon encourages parents to take away easy access to guns, pills, and household poisons.
She also recommends that adults practice empathy when communicating with their teen. “The teenage brain is very impulsive,” says Sharon. “Things that may not seem like a big deal to adults can be a trigger.”
It can be difficult for parents to remember how it felt to be a teen. Adults look back at the time as exciting and fun, but it’s also very stressful as teens feel greater pressure to achieve academically and fit in socially. “Before social media, things that could cause stress, like a breakup or other social trigger, would disappear; now they last longer and have a wider network,” says Sharon.
Parents should be on alert for the warning signs that their child may be considering suicide:
- Previous suicide attempts
- Family history of suicide
- Diagnosis of depression or other mental illness
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Stressful life event or loss
- Suicidal behavior of others
Parents should monitor their children’s social media and look for statements indicating the child feels hopeless or giving hints that he or she might not be around anymore.
Parents need to be observant of perfectionist traits. Suicide rates increase when kids fail a big test, or right after college or high school, when high-achieving teens feel stress and uncertainty. “Kids need to learn how to fail,” Sharon says. “Failure should be an opportunity to learn and to discuss how many successful people fail. It can be hard for adolescents to understand that.”
If parents suspect their child is suffering from depression or having suicidal thoughts, Sharon recommends seeking professional mental-health counseling. “Kids need help identifying feelings, recognizing patterns, and developing self-awareness. You can even ask your pediatrician for a mental-health screening.” Sharon says parents should think about mental health the same way they think of physical health. “Don’t look at mental-health counseling as a weakness; there are resources to help people with depression and anxiety,” says Sharon. She suggests looking into your health insurance to learn about the coverage options.
Even if you don’t suspect your child of having suicidal thoughts, Sharon advocates for parents to talk to kids about mental health. “Talk to your children about what normal sadness feels like, and probe them with questions to find out what they mean when they feel sad. Help create a strong social network of family and friends, and get your children involved in healthy activities including sports or faith-based activities.”
Teach your children about conflict resolution, and work with them to develop healthy peer relationships. Sharon says these things are key life skills parents can start talking to children about as early as elementary school.
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The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.