Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Suicidality among children and adolescents

By Laurie Meyers August 25, 2021

This past spring, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” in youth mental health. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital system’s pediatric emergency rooms and inpatient units had become increasingly overrun with children and adolescents with serious mental illness, many of whom were actively suicidal.

“It has been devastating to see suicide become the leading cause of death for Colorado’s children,” the hospital’s CEO, Jena Hausmann, told journalists and reporters at a pediatric mental health media roundtable on May 25.

This mental health crisis is not confined to Colorado, however. Pediatric medical systems across the nation have reported a significant and sustained rise in mental health-related visits for children and adolescents that began in spring 2020. According to the June 18, 2021, issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, mental health-related emergency room visits among adolescents ages 12-17 increased 31% compared with the rate in 2019. In addition, the report found that in this age group, the mean weekly number of emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts was 22.3% higher during summer 2020 and 39.1% higher during winter 2021 than during the corresponding periods in 2019. This increase was more pronounced in girls; during winter 2021, suspected suicide attempt visits to the emergency room were 50.6% higher among girls ages 12-17 than during the same period in 2019.

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A confluence of factors

Research indicates that mental health concerns and suicidality have been increasing in children and adolescents for years. The current crisis cannot be linked to any singular cause, but it is evident that the isolation and anxiety of the pandemic added an accelerant to an already burning flame.

Renee Turner, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in San Antonio, points to several factors she believes have been detrimental to child and adolescent mental health. Although she declares she is not by any means anti-technology, Turner admits she is concerned about the influence of social media, which not only continues to feed cyberbullying — which, unlike “old-school” offline bullying, is inescapable and omnipresent — but also encourages children and adolescents to view the world through an artificial lens, she says. “Children don’t have the ability to sort out what is real, what’s true,” and many parents are not teaching them how to consume online content in context, explains Turner, a registered play therapist supervisor. Technology is all-consuming, and many parents do not monitor or restrict their children’s screen time.

For that matter, Turner notes, many adults struggle with their own screen addictions. She believes this contributes to another modern problem: attachment issues. The rise of dual-income families, in which parents work demanding hours or multiple jobs for financial reasons or because of career demands, makes it more difficult to find time for bonding, she asserts. 

Turner also considers the pressure of living in such an achievement-oriented society another potential factor in the increase of suicidality among this population. “I see kids who are chronically overscheduled,” she notes. These young people are involved in myriad activities in consistently competitive environments in which achievement is conflated with self-worth, Turner points out. “It’s all [based on] their output, instead of them being valuable for just being them,” she says.

Turner, the director of Expressive Therapies Institute PLLC, has counseled middle school-age children who are already anxious about how they’re going to get into college. The demands on their time are such that they are staying up late into the night to get everything done, she says. What really stands out for Turner is that some of her clients who are in middle school and younger are self-harming and suicidal because they see no end to the treadmill they find themselves on. The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the situation, she says, because children and adolescents struggled with online schooling even as parents tried to juggle working from home, taking care of the kids and helping with schoolwork. 

Turner stresses that children and adolescents need to have areas of their lives that exist simply for enjoyment — not performance. “If everything is evaluated, everything becomes work,” she observes.

Sarah Zalewski, an LPC who specializes in child and adolescent counseling, was working as a school counselor in a Connecticut middle school at the beginning of the pandemic. She noticed that the coronavirus restrictions had a profound effect on her clients and on students. “The kids who were in virtual schooling and separated from their peers struggled way more than those in school,” she says. “That routine and the connection with their peers is almost like a distraction from the stuff that is going on in their heads.” Things that had been on a “low boil” suddenly flared up, she says. 

Children and adolescents also seemed to struggle with the loss of familiar routines, Zalewski adds. Interestingly, she noticed that students who had been perennially overscheduled before the pandemic had a particularly hard time coping.

Catherine Tucker, a licensed mental health counselor in North Carolina and Indiana who specializes in trauma therapy for children, adolescents and adults, notes that early adolescence (approximately 11 to 14 years) is a particularly vulnerable time. “One of the normal developmental pieces [during early adolescence] is that every generation thinks they’ve invented all the normal problems, such as peer pressure, sex, bullying, dating. They feel like nobody older than them can possibly understand what is happening to them,” she says. As a result, adolescents often feel seen and understood by their peers but not by adults, especially their parents, notes Tucker, an American Counseling Association member and a licensed school counselor at the middle school level. This is a vital source of emotional validation that adolescents have been missing while separated from their peers, she points out.

Tucker also thinks that we’re underestimating the value of physical contact. “Just basic touch; it doesn’t have to be intimate. Just being near other people. The more we find out about neurobiology, the more we learn that things like eye contact, physical gestures and cues can help regulate the nervous system,” she says.

Marginalized populations are at an even greater risk for mental health issues and suicide, and the disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on Black, Indigenous and people of color communities has been an exacerbating factor. Brenda Cato, a professional school counselor who has experience with elementary, middle and high school students, says many of the students at her predominantly Black high school in Augusta, Georgia, saw school not as a social event but as an escape. Most of her clients come from impoverished homes where parents are working multiple jobs and utilities are skyrocketing. At school, these students get two meals a day. Cato believes not being able to get these meals during the pandemic played a significant role in students’ general inability to cope. 

Working with parents

The counselors interviewed for this article contend that educating parents is a vital part of addressing the suicide crisis among children and adolescents. Learning the warning signs of suicide and knowing what to do if a child becomes suicidal is crucial for parents, but it all begins with establishing communication and a sense of trust and safety. “The most important thing is to be able to establish a safe … [environment] where your kid can come and talk to you,” Zalewski says. 

She advises parents to schedule regular one-on-one time with their children. That might involve going out to eat ice cream together or playing games and talking, for example, but she emphasizes that the time should be spent without the parent being on their phone. It is important for children and adolescents to know that they have their parent’s full attention, she says. Zalewski also recommends having regular conversations in which the parent communicates that anything their child tells them in that time or space has no consequences.  

Turner’s clients include overscheduled and single parents who often struggle with the idea that to truly be there for their children, they need more time — time that they don’t have. So, Turner emphasizes quality time to these parents. “It’s essentially meeting the child where they are,” she says. “Taking an interest in what the child is interested in and asking them about that, engaging in their world.” Turner suggests parents have “date nights” with their kids and schedule times when everyone shuts off their phones and puts them in a basket to create a distraction-free zone. 

It can also be helpful to teach parents to establish “bursts” of listening time, Turner says. For example, when a parent is in the middle of something and a child is saying, “Mom, Mom, Mom,” the parent can reply, “OK, I have five minutes right now, so tell me what you need to tell me.” 

Of course, parents may struggle with how to respond appropriately when they find out that their child is experiencing a mental health crisis, especially if the child says, “I don’t want to live anymore.” Zalewski reminds parents that it is important to first take a moment to listen to their child. She then advises parents to say something that lets their child know they are there for them. For example, “Thank you for telling me. That was a brave thing to tell me. Do you want to tell me more about that?”

Zalewski then helps her clients plan for the next steps. “It doesn’t need to be a heavy-handed thing,” she says. Parents can use language such as “We are going to collaboratively figure out what our next steps are. I don’t want you to feel that way, and I want to keep you safe.” The child and parents can then discuss options. 

She adds that parents should ask one crucial question: “Are you able to keep yourself safe?” If the child isn’t sure, she advises parents to say, “I think maybe we need to go to the hospital and see if the counselor there can give us some ideas.” In many states, clients can call 211 to reach appropriate health agencies and even request that a mobile crisis unit come to the home to help establish a crisis plan, she adds.  

But even children and adolescents who have trusting and open relationships with their parents don’t always speak up when they’re experiencing suicidal thoughts. So, counselors need to ensure that parents recognize the warning signs, which are similar to those in adults. “What’s scary is that adolescents can be so much more impulsive than adults, especially … kids who have poor impulse control generally,” Tucker acknowledges. “There are fewer warning signs and fewer opportunities for intervention.”

Tucker emphasizes the importance of educating parents about reducing children’s access to means of suicide, such as having unlocked firearms and medications in the home. 

“The warning signs that I look for are not necessarily different than [those for] adults but are often written off as ‘teenage behavior,’” Zalewski says. For example, withdrawing may be either a warning sign or simply a wish to be alone. Parents should look for major changes in their child’s behavior in areas such as eating, sleeping and socializing, she says. Giving away prized possession is also a major red flag, she adds. 

Zalewski stresses that parents should not dismiss a child’s statement of wanting to hurt or kill themselves. “So many parents have said, ‘I thought this was just them expressing themselves for attention.’ If this is your kid’s way of getting attention, you need to pay attention and find out why they are using those words,” she says. 

Zalewski also urges parents to honor their intuition: “If you think there is a problem,” she says, “there probably is.”

Teachable moments

Cato faced a different kind of challenge when educating parents of students who had been identified as suicidal. “I was working in a predominantly Black elementary school, and a teacher sent a child to me who had been making suicidal comments,” she recalls. After assessing the student, Cato called the grandmother, who was the child’s guardian. The woman was irate and asked how many students in the school had been tested for suicide. Cato reassured the grandmother that the school didn’t test — it assessed. This taught Cato the importance of educating parents on suicide rates and the percentage of children who attempt or die by suicide.  

Cato didn’t approach the situation with the student’s grandmother from the attitude of “your kid is suicidal, and you will get help.” As a parent herself, she knew that if she didn’t understand what was happening with her own child, she would want someone to walk her through it. So, Cato sat down with the grandmother and explained that her granddaughter wouldn’t necessarily be put on medication or need ongoing therapy. However, Cato recommended that the child be seen by an expert. She told the grandmother that the school just wanted to make sure the child was OK and that she wouldn’t harm herself. Cato also reassured her that her granddaughter would not be stigmatized or labeled as a “problem” student, nor would a note be put in her permanent record. “I think everything is about how you communicate with people,” Cato says. Besides, the grandmother’s concerns were understandable, she adds. Black students are commonly — and disproportionately — diagnosed with serious mental health issues, Cato says, adding that she has seen students of color sent to special education classes based solely on disciplinary issues.

After the student was medically cleared, Cato worked with the student to create a reentry plan that included regular check-ins. These were sometimes as simple as walking casually with the child and asking her to rate her day on a scale from 1 to 10.

Cato tries to turn all her interactions with students and parents into teachable moments. She provides them with pamphlets, resources and crisis hotline numbers, and every time she visits a classroom, she reminds students that the counselors and teachers are there for them. She says she tries to “help them to understand it is not abnormal to feel this way.” She purposely uses “we” when she speaks to students: “We’ve all gone through rough times; we all need help sometimes.” 

Zalewski believes it is essential to also point out and honor the resilience strategies that children are already using. If listening to music helps a child or makes them feel better, then it is a good coping skill, she says. Discovering coping strategies helps build children’s confidence, she notes, and she informs parents of their children’s coping strategies too.

For that matter, Zalewski has found that her young clients often love to teach the strategies they have learned in session to their parents. In fact, to encourage clients to practice a skill outside of session, she recommends that they teach their parents how to correctly take a deep breath and explain what deep breathing does to the brain to calm the body. “Because then we’re helping parents regulate, [and] then we are co-regulating,” Zalewski says. “It can also really give a child a sense of self-efficacy that a lot of kids are lacking because kids are inherently powerless.”

She also works with clients on mindfulness, guided imagery, progressive relaxation, and identifying what physical activities they enjoy and why. For example, a child might like to play basketball in the driveway, but in Connecticut, snow often gets in the way. So, Zalewski helps them figure out the source of their enjoyment: Is it the physical energy they’re expending? Is it the repetition? They then come up with alternatives such as using weights in the basement. Zalewski is a firm proponent of anything that can get clients moving and (when possible) outside. “Nature is reparative for most humans,” she notes.

Tucker says that before the pandemic, children and adolescents were already experiencing stress related to a lack of connection, which she thinks could be associated with too much screen time. As children and adolescents begin to return to in-person activities, it is crucial to make sure they strike a healthy balance between screen time and social activities such as playing sports, working on art projects or simply hanging out together, she stresses. She also believes that the currently common practice of banishing recess in favor of test preparation or other extra classroom work has contributed to children’s anxiety levels. She argues that kids need a lot more time dedicated to free play and imagination.

Helping the helpers

Julia Whisenhunt, an LPC and certified professional counseling supervisor, specializes in studying and training others in suicide prevention. She always frames her workshops around suicide data to “help people understand that [suicide] isn’t uncommon.” Her goal isn’t to normalize the idea of suicide but rather to let people know that it happens and there is help. 

“I know there’s an assumption that talking about suicide makes people suicidal, but the research doesn’t bear that out,” notes Whisenhunt, an ACA member who is an associate professor in the counseling department at the University of West Georgia (UWG). “I think it’s the opposite. I’m confident that trainings have saved lives and helped individuals. I know that. I’ve lived it. The suicidality is there — people are just struggling in silence.”

It is important when training people who are not mental health professionals to emphasize that their role is not to “save” an individual who is suicidal but rather to get them help, Whisenhunt adds. 

Although Whisenhunt’s workshops are geared toward college staff (and students in positions of authority, such as resident associates), she is trained in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), which can be used to train staff in public school districts. ASIST is a 14-hour training created by the company LivingWorks that is grounded in research, Whisenhunt says. UWG’s counseling department does ASIST training with practicum students, and Whisenhunt says they report feeling much more confident once they have taken the course, even though they have already learned a good deal about suicide in their program.

One of the main components of ASIST is the “pathway for assisting life,” Whisenhunt explains. “They have a model for how to have a conversation about suicide with someone.” She tells practicum students that this is a model that summarizes everything they already know, but it presents the information in a format that is easy to keep at hand in a crisis. 

The first part of the model is about connecting with suicide, she says. It has two main tasks: exploring indications of suicide risk and then spotting warning signs and naming them. Once warning signs are identified, trainees learn to act directly without beating around the bush, Whisenhunt says.

Whisenhunt and her follow trainers also instruct workshop participants on how to talk about suicide and what to do if someone is expressing suicidal thoughts. She warns participants not to ask, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” because that could mean many different things to the person. Instead, she encourages training participants to be direct and not be afraid to use the word “suicide.” For example, they could ask, “Are you thinking of killing yourself? Are you thinking of suicide?”

She also advises them not to ask leading questions. “If you ask, ‘You’re not thinking about suicide, are you?’ the person knows the answer you want them to give,” Whisenhunt explains. “If the person seems hesitant, trust your gut, talk a bit more, make them feel more comfortable, and circle back around.”

She also tells people to keep asking about suicide. Don’t just ask once and feel “relieved that you got that out of the way,” she insists. “If you felt like you needed to ask and the answer doesn’t feel right, ask again,” she says. “A lot of people don’t want to die — they just want the pain to end. Help them know there’s another way out.”

Counselors also need to be prepared to provide resources, Whisenhunt adds. She advises her trainees to keep hotline numbers in their phones and to carry suicide prevention cards in their wallets. 

“When talking with an individual and hearing about their despair, chances are you are going to hear something that means that they don’t want to die. It’s often something like, ‘I don’t want to leave my dog,’” Whisenhunt says. “If you hear that little thing that says they don’t want to die, you don’t [want to] be manipulative, [but] you say, ‘I know that you’re in a lot of a pain, but it seems to me like you’re still thinking about living because you want to be there to take care of your dog.’ That’s the turning point — where they start to turn away from suicide and toward life.”

Counselors can then ask clients if they want to develop a plan to keep them safe for now, Whisenhunt continues. The use of the phrase “for now” is important, she stresses, because when people are in a suicidal crisis, talking about living for years and years is overwhelming to them. The safety plan should be for a matter of hours or days — just until the person can be connected with help, she explains. 

The ASIST safety plan includes “safety guards” and “safety aids.” Whisenhunt says safety guards include protecting clients from risk factors such as a plan to die by suicide, problematic alcohol or drug use, prior suicidal behavior, or mental health concerns that might exacerbate risk. Counselors can help clients consider ways to mitigate these risks such as by reducing or eliminating drug use. 

Guarding also involves being mindful and looking at previous suicide attempts for clues to keep the client safe, Whisenhunt adds. For example, the client might be impulsive, so part of keeping them safe involves having someone stay with them for a few days. 

Safety aids are elements that help improve a person’s chances of staying safe, Whisenhunt explains. Counselors can help clients consider the strengths they already possess and the supports they need to build. “It’s strengths-based,” she says. “We try to help individuals see their strengths and resilience and see options to help them feel better.”

Being prepared 

Counselors may be trained in suicide assessment and prevention, but putting that knowledge to use can still be a scary prospect, Zalewski acknowledges. For that reason, she stresses the importance of specialized training. If possible, she recommends that counselors find a local training opportunity with someone who can continue to serve as a resource for them afterward. She chose to work with a mobile crisis unit to learn more about helping those in suicidal crisis.

“There are a lot of modalities out there for suicide assessment,” Zalewski notes. “I would recommend not just picking one modality to learn. To be competent, you have to have a good understanding of what’s out there. Whatever you choose to work with has to mesh with you as a human. Explore what’s out there [and] learn several. … It’s well worth it, so when you are faced with some child who has decided they don’t really feel like living anymore, you’re not looking in your file cabinet or texting saying, ‘OMG.’”

Supervision is also essential, Zalewski stresses. “As counselors,” she says, “it’s easy to get to the point where you think, ‘I’ve been doing this for years, and I don’t need supervision.’” But that’s not the case. Sometimes, Zalewski says, she’s certain that she knows something, but supervision helps her realize that somewhere along the way, what she thought she knew got twisted. 

Counselors also need to have their own sources of support when doing this difficult work. “If you’re working with children and adolescents who are suicidal, it is a heavy weight,” Zalewski acknowledges. “It is so easy to question yourself.” And if the all too imaginable happens and a client completes suicide, the counselor is going to need backup, she adds. 

“Everyone in the end makes their own decisions,” she says. All that counselors can ultimately control is the level to which they provide clients with the best preventive tools, and “a good supervisor will help you assimilate that.”

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Laurie Meyers is senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at LMeyers@counseling.org

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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