Teen suicide: Communities can help improve outcomes

Published 11:57 am Monday, February 13, 2023

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Editor’s note: This article discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, don’t hesitate to contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 804 suicide deaths in Alabama in 2021. Among those were 104 youth and young adults aged 10-24 who died by suicide. While numbers are down slightly from 2018, local experts agree community members can take steps to improve the outcomes for Alabama youths.

Karen Sullins, licensed professional counselor and owner of Helping Hands Professional Counseling and Consulting, works with youth and children in Butler, Crenshaw, and Lowndes counties and said caring for young people within communities is a vital part of the solution.

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“I’m taken aback by the public not realizing how big this issue is until it hits home,” Sullins said. “That way of thinking, that if it doesn’t involve me then I don’t care; we can’t do that anymore. These are our kids’ friends. These are people that are connected in the community. [Teen suicide] impacts the whole school, the family, and the church family.”

Butler County Schools Federal Program Director Lisa Adair said there are warning signs which alerts loved ones when someone is grappling with thoughts of suicide but notes that open communication is the best line of defense.

“Once you start to say, ‘These are the signs,’ there’s always people that fall out of that group,” Adair said. “We do look for kids whose behavior changes; acting in ways that are outside the norm for them. By the time we get the warning signs, it may be too late. I think our best way to advocate for young people is taking away the stigma of having communication about depression and suicide. We’ve really got to do a better job at teaching people how to have those conversations without judgment so that people feel okay to ask for help to self-advocate. We have to teach our young people that it’s never okay to be mean to one another.”

Crenshaw County Schools Special Education Director Sherry Sport emphasized the importance of creating mental health awareness and helping people understand everyone is going through something.

“It’s never okay to judge a person by their actions or how they are behaving,” Sport said. “We challenge teachers to understand that behaviors are a form of communication. We must see beyond behavior to the child underneath and what need is not being met.”

Pathways Professional Counseling Clinical Director Kelly Arant said social media directly impacts adolescents’ mental health and parents should be aware of their child’s social media use.

“This generation does not know life without instant access to what they want, when they want, at any time of the day they desire,” Arant said. “This erodes the ability to tolerate distress, which can lead to increased anxiety. Consuming large quantities of social media increases the likelihood of depression and persons with depression are at an increased risk of suicide.”

Lowndes County Sheriff Chris West  said de-escalation skills can help youths learn to resolve instead of perpetuate conflict.

“Nowadays, social media plays into [conflict],” West said. “Someone is always there with a phone recording, so everyone sees what takes place and it’s replayed over and over because someone else shares the post. We need to teach our kids how to not buy into that and I think that can be done through de-escalation.”

Arant said the Hunstman Mental Health Institute cautions parents to be alert to social media impacts on children. If a child starts to focus too much attention on social media at the expense of real-life interactions or exhibits other behavioral changes, parents should take action.

The QPR Institute offers a practical approach for having conversations about suicide and outlines a protocol for questioning, persuading, and referring teens at risk of self-harm.

“When concerned, it is best to directly ask the person the question, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself,’” Arant said. “This direct question leaves no room for misinterpretation. One person cannot give another person the idea of suicide. They either are having those thoughts, or they are not. If the question is affirmed and the person is considering suicide, the next step is to persuade them to tell someone. This can be as simple as taking the person to a parent, teacher/coach, or other trusted adult. The third step is then to refer to a professional such as a counselor or, in some cases, the hospital.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the best way to help prevent a suicide-related crisis is to seek help and support before the crisis emerges. Someone feeling worried, but not in immediate danger of acting on thoughts of self-harm or suicide, should take steps to find help for care and support, which could come from a pediatrician or primary health provider or a mental health clinician.

Those in immediate danger should go to the nearest hospital emergency room or call 911.

Editor’s note: This report is the second of a three-part series highlighting teen suicide. Part 1 outlined leading contributing factors among youth who consider or attempt suicide. Part 2 describes ways communities can help produce outcomes for youths struggling with suicide. Check out the Feb. 22 edition for Part 3, which will highlight the need for honest conversations around mental health.