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Talk, Ask for Help to Cope with Suicide or At-Risk Friends

05 Mar Depression, Mental Health News/Blog | Comments Off on Talk, Ask for Help to Cope with Suicide or At-Risk Friends

From paying attention to any personality changes to simply asking if there’s problem, doctors contend there are ways to confront rising rate of teen suicide and plenty of resources to help.

By Megan Swoyer

The tragic death of a 17-year-old Cranbrook-Kingswood Upper School student in downtown Birmingham early Monday forced the communities to deal with a difficult, uncomfortable subject: teenage suicide.

Yet, suicide — and the depression or other mental illness that often precedes it — is an issue that touches thousands of lives daily.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death in adolescents, behind accidents and homicides, said Dr. David Rosenberg, chief of psychiatry and psychology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suicide was the 10th ranking cause of death in Michigan from 1995-2005, with an average of 1,049 residents taking their lives each year. Of those, 7.9 percent were people age 15-19.  Meanwhile 76.7 percent of all Michigan suicide attempts during that time were in that teenage age bracket, according to the center.

Fortunately, there are plenty of tips and programs to help parents, teachers, friends and others in the community trying to cope with suicide or someone they believe is at risk.

An escalating problem

MINDS: Shining Light on Mental Health is a Southfield-based educational nonprofit that has been going into area classrooms for 13 years educating young people on mental illnesses and the early warning signs of suicide.

“We educate and refute stigma,” MINDS founder Heather Irish said. “We don’t diagnose. We teach kids about how the brain works, letting them know if your brain isn’t working the right way, it might be a mental illness.”

Every year, the organization speaks to roughly 20,000 students at schools around Metro Detroit. However, Irish said the number of suicidal kids approaching them after their presentations during the past two years has risen dramatically — so much so that it reminds her of the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Much of this spike in young people considering suicide can be attributed to increased stress, pressure and even the tough economy, she said.

Rosenberg agreed, but also noted that part of the spike in suicides can also be attributed to the lessening stigma of mental illness. Whereas tragedies were once hushed up 10-20 years ago, he said now families are more comfortable be honest when suicide happens.

Young people clearly face more stress than in the past, he said, and the dramatic spike in suicide rates can’t be attributed simply by fewer families hiding their depression.

Confronting survivor’s guilt

“When someone dies, it’s tough. But when someone dies from committing suicide, it’s complicated,” said Dr. Paul Smith, owner and president of the Rochester Hills-based Abaris Behaviorial Health clinic.

Chad Oyer, associate pastor of student ministries at the First United Methodist Church of Birmingham, agreed. “What makes a student suicide so difficult is that it’s not uncommon for the living to never blame the dead; rather they blame themselves,” Oyer said. “Consequently, suicide plants seeds of destruction in the lives of those around him or her — parents, siblings, friends and classmates.”

Recovering from a friend’s suicide can be especially traumatic, especially if you were close with the victim. According to Birmingham-based mental health therapist Marilyn Rusche, teens tend to dwell on one thing when a friend kills himself: Why didn’t I see this coming?

“When you’re a teen, you’re not thinking about death,” Rusche said. “Teens think they are literally immortal, so suicide can be a shock.”

Smith agreed. “When a friend or peer commits suicide, you may experience powerful emotions,” including shock, emotional numbness, anger, guilt, self-blaming, depression, hopelessness and despair,” Smith said. “Your grief reaction may continue for weeks or months after the suicide.”

Survivors should not grieve alone, Smith said. “Surround yourself with family and friends for comfort and understanding, for someone to listen and a shoulder to lean on when you need it,” he said.

“That’s why it’s imperative for adults to listen to, to empathize with, affirm and, if there’s any doubt, direct students to professionals who can help,” Oyer said.

The student who killed himself Monday was staying in Cranbrook dorms while his family was living in Texas, though they did maintain a second residence at Birmingham Place in downtown Birmingham, where the boy’s suicide took place.

At Cranbrook, students are being provided with guidance from school staff during this difficult time, Communications Director Clayton Matthews said. “Cranbrook schools have longstanding mentoring and counseling programs, particularly for boarding students,” he said. Monday, Cranbrook released a statement noting that “a grief counseling team comprised of school counselors, deans, nurses, and the school’s chaplain are on hand to talk with students.” Parents were also notified the services are available.

Identifying the signs

A friend’s or family member’s suicide isn’t anyone’s “fault,”  but there is always room to pay closer attention, Rosenberg said. Though he wouldn’t comment specifically on the Cranbrook student’s case, he said more than 80 percent of suicide victims alert someone before they commit the act.

Determining if your child, student or friend is at risk for suicide may be the first step toward helping them, though area doctors say untangling the signs can be incredibly difficult.

“There are no cookie-cutter descriptions or signs of behavior that convey someone’s going to commit suicide,” said Peter Wolf, a Bloomfield Hills-based mental health therapist who works with youths and teens. “Suicide is insidious and affects everybody.”

According to Wolf and Irish, these warning signs include:

  • Changes in mood
  • Changes in relationships with friends
  • Changes in behavior, such as dropping grades or quitting the football team
  • Talking about not wanting to be around
  • Giving away his or her prized possessions
  • Thinking or talking about his or her own death and funeral
  • Cryptic social messaging, such as on Facebook or in text messages.

Above all, Rosenberg said, if you’re concerned that someone you know is at risk for suicide, ask them about it. Asking will not drive them to commit the act, he said, but rather let them know someone cares.“You may just save a life if you ask the question,” he said.