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Worried parents should talk to kids about suicide, depression

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Parents who are worried their children may be depressed or contemplating suicide should not hesitate to bring up the issue, local mental health experts say.

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Parents who are worried their children may be depressed or contemplating suicide should not hesitate to bring up the issue, local mental health experts say.

"A really important step is to talk with the child," said Marilyn Ripplinger, a counselor at Red River High School in Grand Forks.

"Ask that very question: 'I'm noticing that you're feeling sad. Is there something going on?' There's a myth that, if you talk about suicide, it's more likely (the person) is going to do it," Ripplinger said. "It's not true."

People in this state of mind are relieved and "grateful that somebody is reaching out to them to have a conversation with them. ... They welcome the options on how to cope with this."

The prospect of suicide "is scary for parents and family members, but it's also scary for the person (who's contemplating it)," she said.

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"They don't want to end their lives; they want to end the emotional pain that is plaguing them. ... You're in such a tunnel, you can't think clearly."

Research has shown more than 90 percent of people who took their own lives had a mental health or substance abuse disorder at the time of death, Ripplinger said.

"People sometimes think they can talk the person out of (suicide)," she said. "If they're thinking about it, it's serious. Even if it's for attention, don't push it aside. Let's get to the bottom of it."

Mike Dewald, manager of Grand Forks' Altru Psychiatry Center and former addiction counselor, agreed.

"It's okay to ask, 'Are you feeling depressed? Are you having suicidal thoughts?' " he said. Although it may be difficult, it has to become more normal to ask those questions.

"Sometimes teens don't want to talk about their feelings--so much depends on the trust level between parent and child. By asking, you're sending a message that it's okay to talk about these things," Dewald said.

It's just as important to listen and not judge.

"Let them talk and share their feelings," he said. "Parents have been through difficult times and low points in their lives and survived. Kids haven't."

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The pre-teenage years are a "very tumultuous time of their lives -- it may be there was a fight at school, a bad grade or kids laughing at them."

Never say things like "Just tough it out" or "That's nothing," Dewald said. By doing so, parents are not acknowledging that the feelings are valid and real, and they could discourage open communication.

The child should be encouraged to talk to a trusted adult, even if it's not a parent, he said.

Warning signs

Parents also should know and be alert to warning signs, especially feelings of sadness and hopelessness, with the latter being one of the most telling indicators, Dewald said.

"It's not unusual for kids to be sad from time to time, but if your child demonstrates and shows hopelessness, that's a key concern as it relates to suicide," Dewald said.

"With hopelessness, kids may feel that there's no way out, or they think 'I have no answers; this is never going to change,'" he said.

Negative events such as "being arrested, fined or humiliation issues at school are big issues for kids. If they have no one to talk to, things can escalate pretty quickly."

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Give them a list of resources and contact information in case they need to reach out for help, he said.

Changes in normal social behavior and school performance should be taken seriously, Dewald said. Watch for decreased interest in school,  poorer grades and changes in normal social behavior or activity level in sports or clubs that were important to them.

Be aware of physical signs such as changes in sleeping patterns -- too much or too little sleep -- and eating patterns evidenced by changes in weight or appetite.

"Parents have to know it's serious," Dewald said. "They think it's just a phase; they don't want to believe their kid is in trouble -- that brings up feelings that we're doing something wrong. We as parents treat our guilt by minimizing the problem.

"If the child sees that, then you're no longer that trusted person they can turn to."

Friends' behavior

What can parents do to help their kids respond to a friend who's thinking about suicide?

"They have to tell a trusted adult," Dewald said. "Having thoughts about suicide is a serious threat to their friend's life. They cannot keep that a secret.

"You might say, 'Would you rather risk losing a friendship or losing a friend?'"

Timing is crucial, he said. "If the friend tells your kid that he had a bottle of pills and almost took them, it's important to do something right away. The behavior could be repeated quickly."

While kids are usually reluctant to reveal such information, Ripplinger tells them, "It's better to have a mad friend than a dead friend."

Resources

-- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255.

-- Youth Suicide Prevention Program: www.yspp.org .

-- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: www.afsp.org .

-- North Dakota Suicide Prevention Program: www.ndhealth.gov/suicideprevention .

-- TEARS (Together We Educate About the Realities of Suicide) at Altru Health System: www.altru.org/services/psychiatry-center/tears/ .

-- Contact the counselor at your child's school.

Related Topics: HEALTH
Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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