How to detect a crisis—and what to do about it.
Your Local Health | Written by BJ Towe
Since 2009, parents, teachers, and students in Southeast Polk, Johnston, and Urbandale school districts have felt the heart-crushing agony of students taking their own lives. In some cases, bullying was blamed. “But it absolutely is not the only issue,” says Amanda Johnson, M.D., a Family Medicine physician with The Iowa Clinic. While many factors can contribute to suicidal thoughts, “If parents and others aren’t aware of the signs and symptoms in youth, it can get missed.” The result can be tragic.
The tell-tale signs of depression (a form of mental illness) in kids are unlike those for adults, who typically feel an overall sense of sadness. “The first sign of a problem in kids is definitely behavioral changes,” says Dr. Johnson. “Any behavior that is out of the norm and that is becoming a functional deficit should be viewed as a warning sign.”
In 2009, suicide represented 24.5% of deaths among Iowa’s youth (ages 15-24), making it the second leading cause of death.
-Iowa Department of Public Health, Center for Health Statistics, 2009.
Johnson says, “It’s easy to dismiss these behaviors as ‘kids being kids.’ Some parents don’t want to intervene because they want to give their child privacy. Some believe that the mere mention of suicide will cause their child to contemplate it. There’s absolutely no evidence supporting that. Parents should never feel this is a topic they shouldn’t discuss with their kids,” she says.
If—and as soon as—you notice one of the warning signs (see sidebar), The American Academy of Pediatrics says you must act quickly:
- Ask if they are thinking about suicide. Get it out of the open and let them know you’ve heard their cries for help.
- Reassure them that you love them and that no matter how awful problems seem, they can be worked out and you want to help.
- Ask them to talk about their feelings, listen carefully, and never dismiss their problems or get angry with them.
- Remove all lethal weapons from your home, including guns, pills, kitchen utensils, and ropes.
If your child doesn’t respond to you, Johnson urges getting professional help.
“Any physician would be willing to help anytime. Annual physicals are also a good time for a physician to talk with students and assess how they are doing,” Johnson says. “I routinely ask patients about lifestyle behaviors and emotional health. If their answers about mental health concern me, we will discuss suicide and how they would do it. When they give me a clear answer, that can signal a higher risk. We can then intervene right away.”
More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined.
-U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 2001.
Signs that your child may be in a crisis:
- Irritability and/or fighting with others
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Lack of interest in social activities
- Poor concentration and/or school performance
- Change in sleeping or eating habits
- Neglecting personal appearance
- Excessive worrying, becoming overly emotional and/or other personality changes
- Frequent complaints about stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, and other physical symptoms
If for any reason you are concerned about your child’s mental well being, schedule an appointment with your child’s primary care provider or with a Pediatric or Family Medicine provider at The Iowa Clinic by calling (515) 875-9000.