To Help Kids With Thoughts Of Suicide, Talk About It, Make A Safety Plan

Mental-health-related emergency room visits rose among youth during the pandemic. A child psychiatrist has suggestions for how to help young people in distress.

By Joy Diaz, Laura Rice & Caroline CovingtonSeptember 15, 2021 5:18 pm

Editor’s note: The story below discusses thoughts of suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide and needs help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. This story also suggests other ways to help children, in particular, who are experiencing suicidal thoughts.

The pandemic has been an isolating experience for many people, including adolescents who have had to learn at home or stay away from friends for months at a time. One of the consequences of that isolation has been a rise in suicidal thoughts among young people.

Phillip Balfanz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Boerne, Texas, says suicidal thoughts and mental health emergencies among adolsescents were already on the rise in 2019, and surged again later in the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks mental health-related emergency room visits for adolescents, and reported visits increased by 31% overall during 2020 compared to the year before. Balfanz says other data suggests an increase of suicidal thoughts specifically among Black youth during the pandemic.

But addressing suicidal thoughts with children requires special care, and may be different than what it looks like for an adult. Here’s what Balfanz suggests:

Listen to the child, take their concerns seriously and don’t be afraid to talk about it:

“It’s not necessarily the best thing to do to argue with them about the, you know, the value of life. But it’s to ask them what do they mean, what’s going on?” Balfanz said. “And then also asking directly, ‘Are you talking about hurting yourself?'”

Remember: suicidal thoughts fall on a spectrum:

“It’s not an on-off thing, necessarily, that people sometimes come into, come into those feelings,” he said.

Balfanz says a more helpful way to look at it is that those thoughts are an expression of underlying pain, and the person experiencing may think that hurting themselves is the only way out of that pain.

“They feel this overwhelming feeling, and they feel trapped and they think of suicide as as a way to be free of that. And so sometimes understanding it in that way can be helpful,” he said.

Build a support system:

“Make sure that you have other people helping. The question is, how do you get help? Where do you get help? It’s, it’s helpful to have people in the community that are close to you that can offer that continued support,” he said.

Have a safety plan:

Research shows safety plans help when someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts. The safety plan can give them a sense of safety and relief.

A safety plan addresses:

  1. Identifying early signs of distress
  2. Things that can be done to help distract or soothe during those times of distress.
  3. Who to call or what to do if you feel you need more help beyond distraction or soothing.
  4. Who to call or where to go in a crisis – that can include the emergency room.

For parents or caregivers, Balfanz says they can help during early signs of distress by giving the child a calm space without things that trigger them or they could use for self-harm.

“And so it’s, maybe we [should] take those things and put them out of sight for the time being. Is there something that would help you? Can we create a space in the house or wherever you happen to be that maybe it’s a place to be calm? Those are some ideas that might be helpful,” he said.

Again, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

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