By Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides President and CEO
Recently I learned that one of our female residents reported her intent to harm herself. As they discussed her feelings and what was causing her to feel so desperate, staff agreed that she required a psychiatric hospitalization to assure a safer environment and a greater level of care, at least temporarily. When I learned this, my reaction was relief that we were able to address this issue before the girl was able to harm herself. However, it does not resolve the larger issue that we have seen increased suicidal ideation not only with residents but also day students at the Hillsides Education Center. At any given time in the last academic year, an average of two students a week were absent for psychiatric hospitalization.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24. The increase in suicides is alarming, and warrants consideration as an epidemic. Children living in foster care and those identifying as LGBTQ are at a higher risk than the general population. Many children in our care fall into these two categories, so for us, special vigilance is required to be attentive to any indicators of risk for suicide. Changes in mood, unusual behavior, increased isolation, depression, and self-harming behavior are all things that would raise our concern and require our attention.
September is Suicide Prevention Month. Given the significant increase of incidents, it is important for all of us to become familiar with the warning signs. Some believe that asking about suicide will only increase the possibility that someone will harm himself or herself. However, the opposite is true. Addressing the possibility that someone might be depressed enough to harm themselves is often the conversation that can make the difference and avoid a tragedy. A recent CBS report of how a couple was blindsided when their 17-year-old daughter jumped off a highway overpass to her death points to the challenge of recognizing the warning signs. A high-achieving, socially active and well-liked child was nevertheless consumed with self-doubts and loathing, unable to express her feelings except in a journal that recorded her anguish. Because suicidal thoughts can be so difficult to detect, it is important to approach our children with a heightened sensitivity.
At Hillsides we address the issue of suicide as an opportunity to assure the children and youth in our care that we are committed to keeping them safe and will provide what they need to deal with anything they are experiencing. Helping them trust adults is perhaps the greatest obstacle given the traumas they have experienced. Being non-judgmental, affirming, and consistently present goes a long way in overcoming the lack of trust. Communicating in word and action that they are valued and important is often what children need to know in order to seek help.
The stigma associated with mental illness is significant. The tendency to underestimate the risk of suicide is strong. The stressors affecting our children and adolescents are easily unrecognized. Without becoming unnecessarily protective, we should adopt a vigilant posture in increasing our awareness of the risk of suicide and take advantage of the opportunities we have to assure our children of our love and care.
For more information about suicide prevention, please visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.