September's National Suicide Prevention Week and World Suicide Prevention Day brought much-needed attention to the international abyss that is death by one's own choice and the preventable nature of these tragedies.
Perhaps the call for prevention is most salient when applied to young people ages 10 to 24, for whom suicide is the third leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also notes a rise in the number of attempted suicides among teenagers, from 6.3 percent in 2009 to 7.8 percent in 2011.
Key among these prevention efforts is the communication of warning signs (including declining school performance, loss of pleasure in social activities, changes in appetite or sleep, agitation or irritability, and substance abuse), even if a young person's acute responses to reactive depression may rob loved ones of time to intercede.
Either way, spotting red flags alone is not enough.
Many, if not most, young people lack sufficient longevity to know that how they feel at a certain point in time -- be it a day, a week, a month or more -- is not how they will feel in perpetuity. This is an especially important consideration when emotional pain portends feelings of hopelessness that often precede suicidal ideation and action.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that what we know about the causes of suicide lags far behind our knowledge of many other life-threatening illnesses and conditions, at least in part because of a lingering stigma surrounding suicide.
But never mind that the etiologies differ. All children, teens and young adults, whether subservient to brain chemistry or victims of bullying (and whether suffering or not), deserve direct dialogue about suicide. Sure, these are tough conversations to have. But suicide is neither contagious nor incited by conversation. Just as we teach our children to look both ways before they cross the street or to brush their teeth before bedtime, we need to arm them with the truth about depression and suicide .. that one is not necessarily forever, but the other most definitely is.
Talking about sadness is likely part of many families' regular routine. We are quick to notice shifts in mood and to pose questions or offer comment and consolation: "You seem out of sorts today. Is everything OK?" Or, "I'm sorry you had a bad day at school. You'll probably feel better tomorrow." What is more difficult is facing the prospect that our child is actually depressed and may need professional help.
If we suspect a young person we love is in trouble, we can begin dialogue much the same way we might around other issues related to health and safety: relying on what we observe or hear and how it makes us feel.
• You seem down lately, and I am wondering if you are feeling depressed.
• Many kids who experience depression think they will always feel bad, and that is definitely not the case.
• I am concerned about you and would like to help you to feel better.
• I've been hearing about young people who attempt or commit suicide. Is that something you're thinking about?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says to act quickly if you think your child might be in danger, providing reassurance of your love and willingness to help. AAP also advises removal of any potentially lethal weapons from the home (including guns, knives, and pills) and the seeking of professional help through referral by a child's pediatrician.
Statistics tell a powerful story. What's missing are the tales of the beautiful, bountiful lives lost - let alone those left behind.
We honor those lives when, even in the best of times, we tell the young people we love that life holds many twists and turns... the best being emboldening and empowering and the worst being depressing and devastating. And lest they believe the latter will remain constant and unsolvable, they need to be told that better days lie ahead.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.