Suicide in Children and Teens: A Public Health Crisis
Three people jumped from the Newport (Rhode Island) Pell Bridge in less than three months. More than 200 sailors were moved off an aircraft carrier after multiple colleagues killed themselves — three in one week in April. A star college athlete took her life on April 13. Country and western legend Naomi Judd died by suicide on April 30, after a long battle with depression.
Not making headlines are the millions of individual children and teens across the country struggling every day with a myriad of mental health issues, from anxiety and eating disorders to depression and ADHD. The statistics are alarming. The lack of accessible mental health care is deeply concerning. This puts an increasing number of young people at risk of suicide, now the second leading cause of death among youth ages 15 to 24.
In 2019, more than one in three high school students reported feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness, which was a 40 percent increase over 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the same year, the CDC says that one in six teens considered suicide, a 44 percent increase since 2009.
We are only now starting to understand the impact the pandemic has had on the mental health of children and adolescents. Feelings of isolation and loneliness, remote learning challenges, and stresses at home have contributed to what the U.S. Surgeon General has called an “urgent public health crisis” in this county.
The numbers are even more startling among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A recent study out of Denmark showed that people with ASD are three times more likely to attempt or die by suicide than the general population. The risk for girls is significantly higher, as well as those with other mental health issues. The study found more than 90 percent of autistic people who attempted suicide or died by suicide had a comorbid condition, such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disease.
With this in mind, Potential CEO and President Kristine Quinby attended a suicide prevention workshop in April tailored to those working in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
“Generally speaking, the kids that we serve don’t frequently express suicidal ideation, but there has been such an increase in everyone since COVID that I thought it would be a good idea to go,” says Kristine. “I wanted to get some information (on suicide prevention) so that I could share it with our staff. What I learned was eye-opening.”
Suicide Is Preventable
Suicide is one of the most preventable causes of death, and the best way to prevent a suicide is to recognize the warning signs and respond to them with timely, evidence-based interventions. However, recognizing the warning signs in people with autism presents unique challenges. That’s because the most effective interventions are communication-focused, and many individuals with autism have language and communication barriers.
“We left the seminar with very effective tools, methods we could implement right away, and feel confident doing so,” adds Kristine. “For children and adults who are able to express themselves, these tools are very effective. Because they involve a lot of talking, they may not be useful for all of our clients. Of course, the one thing we can do — and already do for all of our clients — is to provide a safe environment. And we can also educate our staff and our community.”
Kristine emphasized that many people with autism also have coexisting conditions that put them at higher risk for suicide, such as depression and anxiety. Sadly, many children with autism are the targets of bullying, which may lead to depression and anxiety.
“We also know that children with socialization and communication difficulties, whether they have autism or not, are at greater risk of suicide,” she adds. A further challenge is that many of the typical warning signs of suicide, such as changes in sleep and trouble with social interactions, are common in people with autism; they may not sound an alarm among caregivers. Add to that the communication barriers children with autism experience, and the need for further investigation and additional tools is clear.
For those who can articulate their feelings verbally, Kristine advises you do not hesitate to try to engage someone who may be in trouble in an honest dialogue.
“It may seem awkward, but if you see someone struggling, ask them if they have ever considered suicide. It can save a life.”
“It may seem awkward, but if you see someone struggling, ask them if they have ever considered suicide,” Kristine relays. “It can save a life. We hear the story of Kevin Hines, the man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. He describes feeling immediate regret the second he cleared the rail. If someone had just stopped and talked to him before he jumped, he probably would not have.”
Potential’s Commitment to Staff
Kristine plans to share the information she gathered that day and use it as a springboard to do even more to educate and support the staff at Potential. “This is important information for us all to have, so that we can not just help our clients but support our employees as well,” she states. “Taking care of our employees is who we are; it is what we do. We are a growing organization. And we know that our staff deals with difficult situations every day. We are committed to providing them with the resources they need to care for their clients, and for themselves.”