How to deal with the subject of suicide

I heard from a mother recently whose son knew of a young boy who committed suicide on Kaua’i. Her son was stressed, concerned and not sure what to do.

To those who knew him, I am so very sorry for your loss. May you find comfort in the love of others around you and the many good memories you have of him.

When a teen commits suicide, friends, teammates, neighbors and others in the community are all affected. They experience a range of emotions from grief, confusion, guilt, anger and often the sense that if only they had done something differently they could have prevented the suicide.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds, and the sixth leading cause for death for 5 to 14 year olds. Depression and suicidal feelings are treatable mental disorders. The Nemours Foundations states that risk of suicide increases dramatically when teens have access to firearms at home, and nearly 60 percent of all suicides in the U.S. are committed with a gun. Take heed, and take precautions.

If teens have friends and family, and a support network of teammates, church and peers that are supportive, they may be able to handle their difficult circumstances. But many teens don’t think that they have that, even if their family thinks they do. They may distance themselves from the very ones who love them the most. Ongoing conflicts between teens and their parents can fuel the fire for a teen who is feeling isolated, misunderstood, undervalued or suicidal.

The Parent Project recommends that our kids hear us say daily that we love them. As a child, I believed that if my mother was angry at me, she didn’t love me. So I made sure that my kids and students knew that I loved them even if I didn’t like what they did or it made me angry. Sometimes, after a really sassy remark, I’d just say, “I love you anyway.” I had to practice so that it became automatic, even if I was hurting.

The AACAP lists the following warning signs of depression that some adolescents thinking of suicide might exhibit:

• Change in eating and sleeping habits.

• Withdrawal from friends, family and regular activities.

• Violent actions, rebellious behavior or running away.

• Drug and alcohol use.

• Unusual neglect of personal appearance.

• Marked personality change.

• Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating or a decline in the quality of schoolwork.

• Frequent complaints about physical symptoms, often related to emotions, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, etc.

• Loss of interest in pleasurable activities.

• Not tolerating praise or rewards.

Those considering suicide may also:

• Complain of being a bad person or feeling rotten or guilty inside.

• Give verbal hints with statements such as, “I won’t be a problem for you much longer.”

• Put his or her affairs in order; for example, give away favorite possessions, clean his or her room, throw away important belongings, etc.

• Become suddenly cheerful after a period of depression.

• Exhibit hallucinations or bizarre thoughts or have a psychological disorder including depression.

• Say, “I want to kill myself, or I’m going to commit suicide.”

AACAP recommends that if one or more of these signs occurs, parents need to talk to their child about their concerns and seek professional help if the concerns persist. It gives the message that the parents are paying attention, care and want the child to feel better. It also is a huge relief to a parent to let a professional make decisions about what to do. “Better safe than sorry,” my mother would say.

It’s been my experience that our teens somehow equate going for counseling as being crazy. Teen Court kids agree that if they have a fever and flu symptoms, they wouldn’t think twice about going to a doctor to get treated. We have an emotional body as well. At times, life events can hit it very hard, and things go out of balance for a period. Counselors are the “emotional doctors” that help us get things back in balance.

Kids tell me that they know what to say to the counselors so that they can get out of counseling. I ask them if they would lie about their symptoms to a doctor who was there to help them. They say “no.” I tell them that it is the same with a counselor. If you really want to feel better again, you have to be honest with the counselor. Teens also need to know that their counseling sessions are confidential, unless the child is truly at risk for abuse.

Students could begin with their school counselors, who might refer them elsewhere. On Kaua’i, Child and Family Services can be reached at 245-5914. They can refer children to counseling services that are free. There is also (800) SUICIDE, or (800) 999-9999.

For teens who have lost a friend to suicide, the Nemours Foundations recommends that you acknowledge the child’s many emotions. Some teens feel guilty that they didn’t catch the signs earlier. Others are angry because the act seems so selfish. Some seem to have no strong emotions. All of these reactions are appropriate. Your child needs to know that there is no right or wrong way to feel. Kaua’i Hospice offers grief counseling for children, and will visit schools. Hospice can be reached at 245-7277.

When someone attempts suicide and survives, friends and family may be uncomfortable talking about it. This a time when a person absolutely needs to feel connected to others. If you don’t have the words, bring a flower, a CD, a small gift, a photo, a card with your phone number on it, some cool grinds, an invitation to a movie or something that says you care. Try to have empathy. Love and kindness are rarely rejected.

In your corner

Several adults have “stepped into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support in the boxing ring of life. They are Catherine Stovall, community response specialist, county of Kaua‘i; Edmund Acoba, public defender; Craig DeCosta, county prosecuting attorney; Officer Paul Applegate, Kaua‘i Police Department; Daniel Hamada, superintendent of schools; Jill Yoshimatsu, director of the DOE Mokihana program; and Annaleah Atkinson, Teen Court Manager for Hale ‘Opio Kaua‘i.

If you have something to share with Kaua‘i teens, or need to ask a question, contact Annaleah with the information below and she will field it to the person who can best help with the answer.

• Annaleah Atkinson is the Teen Court manager for Hale ‘Opio Kaua‘i. She can be reached at, or Hale ‘Opio Kaua‘i Inc., 2959 Umi St., Lihu‘e, HI 96766.


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