Parents must take kids' suicide threats seriously

May 11, 2001|By Jodi Shaefer

THIS IS suicide prevention week.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, about every two hours a young person commits suicide. Adolescent suicide is not only one of this country's great tragedies, it is also a symptom of a larger problem.

Mental disorders such as depression are not generally acknowledged or accepted as "real" illnesses. We still blame the victim with remarks like, "Why doesn't he just get off his backside," or "Doesn't she know how she is hurting her family?"

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that by 2020 depression will be the second leading cause of death and disability worldwide. WHO says this will be the result of more stressful lifestyles, poverty and violence.

WHO has started a campaign to debunk the myths and stigmas associated with mental disorders.

A common myth is that mental health problems are those of rich, industrialized countries, but these problems are rampant in both wealthy and poor nations. The Institute of Medicine has determined that 12 percent to 20 percent of all children suffer from behavioral, emotional, or mental health problems at some point in their lives, with 5 percent experiencing severe, disabling problems.

It is tough for parents to admit their child might have a mental health problem; denial is easier. But it is critical for parents to know that suicide is the third leading cause of adolescent death.

If you suspect your child has a mental health problem, take it seriously. Depression is treatable and has a high cure rate. Suicide does not.

We also need to break the conspiracy of silence among parents. We are often afraid to tell other parents about problems their child may be having. We may think the other parent does not want to know or won't believe us, but that is just denial again.

Many times the adolescent will ask for help. Please listen.

Jim was 16 when he told his mom he was depressed and wanted help. He was popular in school, an athlete and had good grades. His mother was unsure what to do because he did not appear to have any problems. She sought advice from a health care professional who told her, "If your child wants help, get it." She found a therapist through their insurance, and he is doing well.

In another case, a 17-year-old girl was using drugs and cutting herself with a razor. She told her mother. The mother instructed her to "stop acting crazy." The girl responded by increasing her use of Ecstasy. Her long-term prognosis is not favorable.

We need to hear our children and get them help when they need it. Finding a qualified provider may not be easy, however. Three reports on the health of Maryland's adolescents found inadequate mental health resources in our state.

We need to take action now to make services readily accessible to our children. It must become as easy to go to a mental health professional as it is to go to a medical doctor. Once mental health support is widely available and accessible, the stigma will start to erode.

The approach being used to prevent gun violence in schools can work for suicide, too: Take all threats seriously. Talk about it. Don't keep the pain a secret.

Don't let the stigma and code of silence kill our children; they are our future.

Jodi Shaefer, a registered nurse, a member of the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Medicine department of pediatrics, is founder of Health Care Answers.

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