During this time of COVID-19, parents are finding themselves suddenly in the role of a teacher, but they may also be on the frontline for supporting their children with mental-health issues or suicide risk.
As schools engage in virtual teaching, many school counselors, social workers, and psychologists are offering availability through telehealth, but it might be more difficult for those professionals to observe children and adolescents who are struggling emotionally. Teachers may see their children online, but it can a challenge to notice behavioral changes on these platforms. Thus, it is important that parents know the warning signs of suicide and how to help their child, particularly as suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 15 to 24 and the third leading cause of death for kids ages 10 to 14.
Warning signs for suicide are often hidden and are best detected by those who know the child well, especially a parent. Warning signs might include children appearing depressed, withdrawn, lacking energy, feeling hopeless about the future, or displaying overwhelming emotional distress. They may talk about suicide and death or have difficulty finding reasons why life is worth living. Children and teens may demonstrate anger or hostility that is out of character or out of context and may have increased agitation or irritability. Warning signs of particular concern include feeling like a burden to others, using drugs or alcohol, making a suicide plan, or seeking suicide means, such as a firearm or medication.
As children are on technology much of the day during this stay-at-home order, they may indicate feelings of suicidal ideation on social media that need to be explored. Ensure that children are educated on warning signs, as well, and know to report concerns immediately. This is not a matter of tattling, but rather of saving the life of a friend. Children should not bear the weight of this burden themselves, nor should they think they can help a peer who needs professional treatment. Children are encouraged to tell a parent or a trusted adult if they are concerned about a friend or peer.
How parents can help
It may be hard to distinguish between a child who is really struggling and one who is having a normal reaction to this COVID-19 pandemic. It is more important than ever to openly talk to your children about how they are feeling and to ask questions directly such as “are you OK?” or “you seem depressed, have you had thoughts of suicide?” Asking about suicide does not give a child the idea to do it. Opening up a conversation lets children know you are willing to discuss whatever they are feeling, no matter how difficult that talk might be. Be sure to listen attentively and without judgment, even if what they tell you hurts, angers, or surprises you.
Thank your children for their honesty and courage in talking to you about their pain. Let your children know they have been heard. The best way to do this is by engaging in follow-up conversations, assuring them that you will get them help, if needed, and finding resources to help them.
It can sometimes be difficult for children to talk to their own parents. Try not to take this personally. Encourage your children to use other supports that are available 24/7, such as calling the National Suicide Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or using the Crisis Textline by texting HELP to 741-741. For further resources, parents can contact the Pennsylvania Center for Community Resources Support and Referral Helpline at 855-284-2494.
Many therapists are offering telehealth during COVID-19. Check with your insurance carrier to see which agencies are covered under your policy or consult with your child’s pediatrician. You can also use these sites to find treatment providers: locator.apa.org/ or https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov.
It takes a village to keep children safe, especially during these unprecedented circumstances, so do not be afraid to reach out for help. Your child does not need to go through this alone, and neither do you.
Terri Erbacher is a clinical associate professor at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and school psychologist for the Delaware County Intermediate Unit. She is co-author of the text “Suicide in Schools: A Practitioner’s Guide to Multi-level Prevention, Assessment, Intervention, and Postvention.”