The stresses of the pandemic mean that public health officials are keeping a close eye on the rate of suicide. That includes among youth.
The number of youths under age 18 in King County who have died by suicide this year is similar to last year, but the average age this year is younger.
In 2019, 14 children aged 17 and younger died by suicide, compared with 13 so far this year, with an additional death still classified as “pending,” said Janae Mareletto, who runs the child death review program for Public Health – Seattle & King County. The average age of a youth suicide has dropped to 14.6 years old this year from 16.5 last year, she said.
And on Nov. 2, Public Health issued a health advisory warning medical professionals of an increased suicide risk among young people. The advisory said four young people under age 18 died by suicide in October in the county.
When Mareletto has reviewed youth suicides, she’s found that young people lacked an emotional outlet.
“Overwhelmingly, what we’re seeing within child death review is a lack of connection or a lot of stress and not being able to process that stress, feeling very isolated or alone in those thoughts,” she said. “Regardless of what the other risk factors are, I think primarily, especially during a pandemic, it is just so crucial to have connection for youth.”
She said parents and caregivers should make time to connect one on one with their kids. And she said an important prevention step is for families to lock up firearms and hide medications.
Dr. Meg Cary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, offered five tips for parents and caregivers on how to give emotional support to their kids amid the stresses of the pandemic.
1. CHECK IN
Dr. Cary says it’s important to not assume things are fine if your child appears to be OK.
“Youth are incredibly good at putting on a mask. We cannot always see the signs of suicide,” she said. “It is essential that we ask how people are doing because we cannot always see it.”
2. DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK DIRECTLY ABOUT SUICIDAL THOUGHTS
It’s fine and even recommended to ask a young person directly, she said. Asking about suicide is a step toward preventing it and does not increase the risk of suicide, Cary said.
“It’s important to ask it very deliberately. 'Are you having thoughts of killing yourself? Does life feel too overwhelming right now? Does life not feel worth it to live?’ ” she said. “Because when we as the adults can communicate that we can hold the pain and the complexity of that conversation, we’re creating a space for youth to not feel so alone in those incredibly complicated, incredibly painful and overwhelming thoughts and feelings.”
3. MAKE SURE YOUTH CONNECT WITH PEERS
It’s difficult right now in the pandemic to see friends and socialize because opportunities to meet up in person are more limited. But friendships play an especially important role in adolescent development, Cary said. That means parents and caregivers should try to give their kids opportunities to connect with friends, whether that’s physically distanced outside or online.
And she said adults can check in on young people to see whether those interactions with friends are giving an emotional boost.
“Are you having supportive conversations? Are you balancing the venting with feeling better after this, or is the venting just escalating your distress and despair?” she said. “And if it is, parents and caregivers can help our kids reorient to some other ideas and help foster creative thinking and innovative thinking around how to connect in ways that feel more healthy.”
4. HEALTHY LIVING AND THINKING ABOUT COMMUNITY
Cary said mental health is tied to physical health. That means getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods and getting regular exercise are all important.
Another thing families can consider is ways to give back to the community through volunteering. Doing something to help others can help a young person focus less on their own circumstances and broaden their thinking.
5. SELF-CARE FOR CAREGIVERS
Parents and caregivers are under a lot of stress and should take time to check in with themselves, she said. They don’t need to strive to be perfect, but just to be real with their kids. That includes apologizing when necessary.
“I think it’s also really important for us as parents to say, 'I messed up. I didn’t show up for you how I wish I could have. Here’s how I’m going to repair that situation,’ ” she said. “Because ultimately that’s what we want our kids to be able to do with each other.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there are free trained counselors available 24/7. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Teenlink is a free helpline for teens that offers support over the phone or text. The number is 1-866-833-6546. The Trevor Project offers trained counselors for LGBTQ youth. The TrevorLifeline can be reached at 1-866-488-7386.