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  • Dreamstime/TNS With the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting a spike in suicide rates among 10- to 14-year-olds, parents and school officials need to work together.

Monday, April 01, 2019 1:00 am

Confronting preteen suicide

Parents, educators have roles to play in reversing increase

Phyllis L. Fagell | Washington Post

The two middle-schoolers had never met in person, but they both struggled with depression and were drawn to the same dark group chat.

When one wrote that he planned to kill himself, the other took an image of his post. “I'm so freaked out,” she told me, her school counselor. “Please find him and make sure he's OK.”

With some assistance, I was able to figure out what Washington-area school the boy attended. When I called his principal, she was bewildered. Her student could be disruptive in class, she told me, but he didn't seem sad.

I wasn't surprised. In early adolescence, depression can resemble rage or irritability or be mistaken for normal mood fluctuations. She acted quickly to make sure the student was safe. At a time when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting a spike in suicide rates among 10- to 14-year-olds, educators are leaving nothing to chance.

“When talking about adolescent suicide, half the time we're talking about kids who are depressed, and half the time we're talking about kids who are impulsive,” says Ken Ginsburg, an adolescent developmental pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.

“Kids this age can't articulate their pain as clearly as older teens, their peers are less mature and don't know how to recognize the signs, and they don't want to snitch.”

Put this all together, and it's easy to see why parents can be the last to know their child is suffering, says Christina Conolly, director of psychological services for Montgomery County, Maryland, Public Schools.

Adolescent children are far less likely to commit suicide than adults, but they have not been immune from a nationwide increase in suicides over the past two decades. The CDC reports that from 1999 to 2017, the suicide rate among boys ages 10 to 14 grew from 1.9 suicides per 100,000 people to 3.3. Among girls, suicides roughly tripled from 0.5 per 100,000 to 1.7.

Researchers recently reported in the journal Pediatrics that while 50 percent of parents are unaware that their 11- to 17-year-olds are having suicidal thoughts, younger teens are more likely than older teens to deny their pain.

To plug the gap on the issue, Conolly implemented the Signs of Suicide Prevention Program in every middle school in her district this year. Students learn to recognize the signs of depression, care for struggling friends and report concerns to adults.

As depression and anxiety skyrocket, communities are scrambling to meet kids' needs with limited resources. Here are ways parents and schools can combine forces to tackle the spike in tween suicide.

Maintain open communication. Two-way communication is critical, but it can be thwarted by logistical and emotional barriers. Educators may feel unequipped to help distressed students or apprehensive about calling home with nonacademic concerns. To build their comfort, many schools now offer mental health training to teachers.

Parents can help. To improve dialogue, signal that you're open to hearing unsettling news about your child.

“Adopting an accusatory or defensive posture will get in the way of sharing key information, such as ups and downs of the young person's mood, concerns brought forward by peers, and changes in a student's academic performance, that can be key to keeping students safe and making sure that treatments are working as they should,” says psychologist Lisa Damour, author of “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”

Transparency is critical in middle school, says social worker Amy Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don't Do.”

“When we most need to have eyes and ears on the ground, communication really drops off,” she says. “Email the school and say, 'Everything seems fine, but what are you seeing?'”

Alert the school when your child needs more support, whether they're grieving a death, adjusting to a change in family structure or coping with depression.

Prioritize self-directed play. As recess decreases and testing increases, there has been a rise in children's mental disorders, says Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College and the author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.”

“Children are almost like prisoners today,” he says. “They're constantly being monitored, their sense of control over their lives has declined, and that sets them up for depression and anxiety.” Instead of just going out to play, they are frequently put in competitive, anxiety-provoking conditions, such as trying to earn a spot on a team or win a game.

Parents can help change the tide. Make the case for more recess at school and prioritize unstructured play at home. Organize weekend block parties and coordinate with neighbors to send kids outside at the same time to just play.

Identify helpers. To normalize help-seeking behavior, prompt kids to silently name the adult they'd approach in a crisis. When I do this with my middle school students, I invite anyone who is stumped to come meet with me.

Willing educators can self-identify as helpers, too.

Teachers may need backup support, but Morin urges them not to send a student to their counselor alone.

“Walk them there and say, 'This is what I'm hearing,'” Morin says. “It's powerful for a teacher to say, 'I really know this kid, he's not a complainer, and here's some background.'”

Parents also can make an effort to be a trusted adult in their kid's friends' lives. Ask questions and show genuine interest in their well-being.

If your own child is suffering, convey to them that they're not alone. Ginsburg recommends saying, “I feel like you're really uncomfortable, and I need you to know it doesn't have to be that way. You deserve to feel better, you can get better, and I will be by your side as you do.”

Sweat the small stuff and the big stuff. A child's concern may seem overblown, but take it seriously anyway. Middle schoolers have intense emotions but little perspective.

“It's easy for them to imagine that every circumstance is an emergency,” Ginsburg says.

That said, some experiences should raise a red flag. Bullying, for example, is strongly linked to suicidal thoughts and attempts, says Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University. Listen to your children, validate their experiences and involve them in problem-solving.

“Well-meaning parents and educators need to avoid secondary victimization by responding callously or incompletely when a tween or teen summons enough courage to tell them what's going on in the first place,” he says.

Bolster kids' sense of belonging. When students leave elementary school, they trade the constancy of a homeroom teacher for a revolving cast of educators. “They can feel progressively alienated from staff in the school at a time when they need non-parental adults more than ever,” says Robert Dodd, principal at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland.

Parents can help strengthen community ties, too. Get to know other families in the school and make a pact to exchange information, whether you hear that a child is giving away prized possessions, making comments about dying or disengaging from friends, all signs of serious trouble.

Encourage kids to care for one another. Middle schoolers may think they're a bad friend if they disclose that a peer is off-kilter. “We give them permission and tell them it's more important to save someone's life,” Conolly says. “We say, 'Put your phone down, have a conversation, tell them you want what's best for them, and you're going to seek help.'” Parents can relay that same advice.

Ask your child how they plan to take care of themselves and look out for others. Then model self-care and self-compassion in your own life, and verbalize any strategies you use to cope with frustration, sadness or disappointment.