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Johnson: Suicide Awareness: How to Help Educate Kids

By Crystal Mullen Johnson

Suicide has long been a public health problem that instills fear in our families. It’s becoming common to read about celebrities or someone we may know who has committed suicide. For example, McKenzie Adams, a nine-year-old Black girl from Linden, AL, committed suicide on Dec. 3, 2018. She attended U.S. Jones  Elementary School in Demopolis, AL – my hometown.

We cannot assume kids can cope with life stressors. When kids speak to us about their problems, we should attend to their emotional needs immediately. I am deeply saddened when I think about someone ending their life. Sadly, family members are left behind to grieve a traumatic death with unanswered questions.

My 11-year-old son, Ethan, told me he heard about 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix Series that focuses on the suicide of a teenager who left behind a box of cassette tapes with details about why she committed suicide. That was the perfect time to learn about what Ethan heard about 13 Reasons Why and for me to provide him accurate information concerning suicidal behavior.

Children should feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings with adults. While working with kids in therapy, I encourage parents to listen, not to make assumptions and do not react. Let’s be clear, suicidal behavioral exists and we should address it openly and honestly.

It’s been my experience as a mental health therapist to hear parents reluctant to discuss suicide with their children. They are fearful their child will consider suicide if they talk about it with them.  It was reported by a November 2019 Pediatrics Study that suicide among Black youths increased 73 percent from 1991 to 2017.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death. Suicide increased for children ages 10-14 years old. Kids are suffering in silence and they are not equipped with the proper coping skills to deal with stress. It’s important for parents, educators, family members, and others to pay close attention to changes in children behaviors and foster communication discussing emotions.

Unfortunately, some kids and adults are not equipped with coping skills to manage stress. Suicide does not have a face. Individuals that have a mental illness are high risk for suicidal ideation (the thoughts of suicide) or suicidal intent (a plan to commit suicide). Look for the following signs from someone that may be high risk of committing suicide: 

  • Previous suicide attempt
  • Giving away possessions
  • Expressions of suicidal thoughts or intentions
  • Withdrawing from friendships, family, or social groups
  • Access to weapons in the home
  • Family history of suicide
  • Physical illness
  • A difficult time coping with homosexuality, abuse, bullying, divorce or significant life changes

Parents bond with your children and monitor their devices and pay attention to what they are watching on television. Do not shame your child if they disclose they are suicidal or suggest praying away their problems. I understand culturally it’s believed that prayer alone heals mental health problems, but that’s not a resolution alone.

 Give your child a hug, support them in attending therapy, remind them of how much they are loved, provide support and security. It’s important for children to understand their life is worth living and to develop resilience.

Join Strive Counseling on September 18 for the Community Mental Health Awareness Initiative Session IV: Answering the Call: Suicide Intervention Strategies featuring Reggie Parker, LPC the Owner of Parker Counseling and Consulting. Register for free at www.strivebhm.com

Crystal Mullen-Johnson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Registered Play Therapist in Birmingham with more than 16 years of experience in providing counseling. Strive Counseling Services is a private practice located in downtown Birmingham. Contact us at (205) 721-9893 to inquire about Telehealth Services or visit Strive Counseling Services—http://www.strivebhm.com

Crystal’s column appears on the second Thursday of each month.