During a one-week period in May, three young Philadelphia residents took their lives.

On Thursday, the city Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) sponsored an informational session on youth suicide in an effort to spread potentially life-saving advice.

One of the myths surrounding youth suicide is that talking about it will lead more young people to think about taking their lives, said Matthew B. Wintersteen, a Thomas Jefferson University psychologist and suicide prevention expert.

"This myth is what has kept suicide prevention out of the schools for years," Wintersteen said to a gathering of city mental health specialists, educators, and other youth advocates.

On May 11, a 10-year-old boy who attended Samuel Pennypacker Elementary School in West Oak Lane hanged himself in a closet in his bedroom. Media reports said he left a note saying he had been bullied.

On May 13, a 14-year-old girl who officials said attended Mastery's Gratz Prep Middle School in Nicetown hanged herself.

On May 18, an 18-year-old male who had attended Howard H. Furness High School in South Philadelphia fatally shot himself, reports stated.

Staff Graphic

A spokesman for the behavioral health agency said the deaths are not believed to be related. None occurred on school properties.

Kamilah Jackson, deputy chief medical officer for child and adolescent health at Community Behavioral Health and DBHIDS, said her department wanted to share advice on how to help.

"We all have the opportunity when someone seems to be having a hard time to not run away from it," Jackson said.

As caring adults, anyone can ask a young person who seems sad or upset if they are having suicidal thoughts. The key is to respect the child's feelings rather than dismissing or making light of them, Wintersteen said.

"When kids are hurting, we want to fix the problem," Wintersteen said. "Sometimes the way to fix the problem is just to listen."

Also helpful is letting a young person know they are not alone and that there is help, he said.

Another common myth is that suicide cannot be prevented, Wintersteen said.

Matthew Wintersteen
Matthew Wintersteen

Most people thinking about ending their lives are acutely suicidal for 24 to 72 hours. Concern shown during that crucial window "can save someone's life," he said.

Adults should be aware of the warning signs of suicidal thinking: expressions of hopelessness; severe or overwhelming emotional pain; marked changes in behavior, including irritability and anger; and changes in sleep patterns.

Parents, Wintersteen said, should get their offspring professional help if they seem to need it, even if they don't ask for it. If necessary, make a deal with them to just try it.

All it takes is one person to make the difference, he said. "We all have a role."

How to get help

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services hotline: 215-686-4420
New Jersey Hopeline: 1-855-NJ-HOPELINE (654-6735)