Teen Suicide Concern: "Keep Calm and Parent On"

An excellent article on teen suicide from a parent and psychiatrist in Palo Alto, California after the suicide of high school student there.

What is notable about Palo Alto is that it is in Silicon Valley and both high schools have experienced a fairly steady rate of suicides over the last several years.  It is an area of high expectations and high hopes and that may play a part in why teens kill themselves.

The author, Adam Strassberg, gives this advice:
There is no single cause of suicide -- the act can arise from any combination of multiple factors -- biological, environmental, psychological and situational. As a community, we agree that whatever can be done to mitigate these factors must be done; where we disagree, however, is where one might expect: What does "whatever can be done" entail? Our public debate continues -- in community meetings, in online forums, in newspaper letters, in school board and city hall meetings. But for me, on line at Starbucks, in the aisles of Safeway, at school campus pick-up or drop-off, this public debate echoes much more private and personal implorations. My fellow parents ask me in whispers: What can we do right now to decrease the risk of suicide in our children?
1. Make your teen sleep

Depression is a major factor in most suicides. Depression causes significant disruptions in sleep patterns. However, an emerging body of literature shows that sleep disruptions seem to precede and even precipitate depressive episodes. 

2.  Talk with your teen

Asking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide. Asking about suicide will not implant the idea of suicide into your teens. Asking about suicide decreases the risk of suicide. So please do ask your teen directly about suicide. 

There is a myth that suicide only can happen to "somebody else's" child. Academic stress, family dysfunction, violence, drug abuse -- these factors increase risk, but suicide crosses all social boundaries, and no family is exempt. 

If you child reports any suicidality, do not leave him or her alone. Contact your doctor or other trained professional, go to your nearest emergency room, or call 911.  

3. Model mental health treatment for your teen.
Create a life worth living for yourself first. Make it optimistic, wonderful and balanced. Model onto yourself the attention to mental health you aspire for your teens. 

Let your children see you cry, let them see you laugh, let them see you touch and hold and comfort one another. 

4. Want the best for your child, not for your child to be the best.

Our community is so intelligent and so educated, and yet the basic sociological concept of "regression to the mean" is misunderstood so widely. The "more" of a quality any parent possesses, the less likely their child will equal or exceed them in that quality.

As a psychiatrist, I will never be neutral on this issue. The "Koala Dad" is the far better parent than the "Tiger Mom."  

5. It's you and the teachers versus your teen, not you and your teen versus the teachers.

If a teacher approaches you with concerns over your teen's behaviors, emotional health, suspected substance abuse, possible cheating or other academic issues, the teacher is not your and your child's enemy. Your job as a parent is not to "defend" your child against this teacher, it is not to keep your child's record "perfect" so they can be accepted to a "good" college. Rather, your job as a parent is first to allow yourself to be sad or anxious or disappointed or all three but then to open your heart to the teacher and work closely with them as a team in order to help your child.

(Editor's note: I agree that it is vital for teachers and parents to work as a team to help students.  However, from my own experience, I believe that YOU, as the parent, are your child's advocate and protector.  You may not know all that your child does at school but, generally speaking, parents know their child better than any teacher.  Your child needs to know that you have his or her's back.)

6. Get a pet.

Our mammalian companion animals are literally "bred" to be perfect therapists: accepting, great at listening, warm, cuddly, always attentive, ever present, ready for petting. 

It may seem trite, but the effect is real, so if you have the resources and room in your family, please consider the joy of pet ownership as an aid to overall happiness and mental health.   

7. Keep Calm.

Suicide is a rare event, but it is also a leading cause of death in teenagers, and statistics over the phenomenon of suicide clustering remain obtuse.  

Why does it need to take a suicide, or worse yet this cluster of suicides, to justify and invigorate public conversation over improving the mental health, happiness and quality of life for our teens?! More sleep, more free unscheduled time to play and to grow, less homework, more balance, better stress tolerance -- these are inherent goods and worthy continual goals for our school district and community. These goals should be active and ongoing and not be predicated upon any "crisis" in student mental health, "perceived" or "actual."


Maureen said…
Not much notice here I recognize, but if you are looking for a conversation starter with your teen about depression, suicide and especially LGBTQA (emphasis on T) related issues, you might want to attend REPRISE at Ballard High Sunday at 2:00.


This musical is entirely produced, written, composed and performed by Ingraham High School students. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students. All profits go to nonprofits like Teen link, Camp Ten Trees and Trevor Project.
Unknown said…
Oh and it's not G rated (because of language and mature themes.)
mirmac1 said…
I pointed out to parents at the WS N2N training re: Bell Times: Make your children sleep!

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