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Wednesday Wisdom

World Suicide Prevention Day

- Reflect -

Recently, I became aware of brilliant palliative care specialist, Dr Ros Taylor MBE, and her incredibly moving Twitter account. Six months ago, Phoebe, her much loved daughter, died through suicide.

Phoebe was an editor, a linguist, an ice cream aficionado, a loving cousin and friend, a Leonard Cohen fan and a volunteer at a foodbank. She wrote poems in her friends’ birthday cards, cleaned her mum’s glasses whenever she saw her and gave brilliant hugs to those she loved. She always seemed to look on the bright side of life, but (according to her mum), struggled silently with the loneliness of lockdown. She was only 31.

Dr Taylor’s beautiful Twitter feed has taken me on a journey through her love, her grief, her shock and her desire to learn more about suicide and hidden depression. It’s heart-breaking and inspiring in equal measure. 

It feels like the right time to focus on this devastating topic as it is World Suicide Prevention Day this Friday – a day when global organisations come together to raise awareness and discussion about creating a world where fewer people die of suicide. Tragically, it is a big issue amongst the young. Worldwide, youth suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 10-24 and is the fourth leading cause of death in 5 to 14 year olds.

Shocking recent data from just before the pandemic found that around 7% of UK children had attempted suicide by the age of 17. Over 200 school children die through suicide each year in the UK. Whilst the impact of the pandemic is still being assessed and remains a source of debate, many experts believe that the fallout from Covid means that this figure is likely to worsen.

The risk of suicide dramatically increases in the teenage years. Girls are more likely to attempt suicide than boys (rates for girls are now at their highest on record), though boys are more likely to die from a first attempt. Being LGBTQ also puts teens at a much higher risk. American LGBTQ teens seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth and in a recent UK study, almost 56% of LGBTQ teens reported self-harming compared to 21% of those who identify as heterosexual. If a teen does attempt suicide, they are most at risk of a second attempt within the first 3 months. 30% will reattempt within a year (Hughes, 2021). 

These statistics are devastating for any parent to read. But it’s important to understand that they are not inevitable. It’s widely acknowledged that, with appropriate support and education, suicide can often be prevented. Organisations such as The Ollie Foundation, established by three grieving parents, work hard to promote good mental health amongst young people and provide interventions to help ensure that no one thinks that suicide is their only remaining option. You can see all of the amazing events and training that they offer on their website. The theme of this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day is creating hope through action. It aims to promote the message that we are all key players in helping to prevent suicides. 

- Motivate -

So, what should parents do? Firstly, if you have any concerns at all about your child’s mental health, please make sure that you seek medical advice.

Go to your GP and talk to their school. If you feel that they are in immediate danger, go straight to A&E. Don’t be afraid, embarrassed or worried about what people might think. There are many people and organisations that can help.

But let’s take a step back. Early prevention is key. Research tells us that there are lots of factors that help to protect young people from suicidal feelings and many of these start in the home. Having positive family relationships, experiencing a sense of belonging to their school and friendship groups, feeling a degree of mastery over aspects of their life, such as schoolwork or hobbies, and having things to look forward to, are all crucial in establishing a strong sense of mental wellbeing. 

Try to ensure that your family life is as stable as it can be and that your child has contact with people who make them feel good about themselves. We should take an interest in their passions and give them access to things that bring them joy. Encourage them to reflect on their achievements and set realistic goals. Praise them for their effort. Teach them to view what they see online with a critical eye. Help them to be discerning about what they read and conscious of the fact that making comparisons can affect how we feel about ourselves. Talk about feelings and help them to develop a vocabulary around emotions.

As in so many of the things that I write, I also advise that we don’t underestimate the importance of sleep! Long-term poor sleep among teenagers has actually been associated with an almost threefold increased risk of attempting suicide (Liu, 2004). Parents’ rules around bedtime are one of the most powerful protective factors for children’s sleep, even into the teenage years. As children become teens and start to assert their independence, rules around bedtime often relax. The evidence shows that parents should respect this growing autonomy, but remain authoritative, keeping a bit of control over bedtime right into adolescence.

- Support -

As children return to school this autumn, it’s crucial that they know where and how to access help, should they need it.

Encourage them to map out all of the people in their lives who love them or that they can turn to for help. Gently help them to see that there are always options and choices, even when we feel at our worst.

Keep a watchful eye for any signs of distress. This could be irritability, problems sleeping, a loss of energy or a lack of joy in activities that they normally love. You might suspect that they are self-harming. If you notice anything amiss, talk to your child about how they are feeling. Be curious, sensitive and non-judgemental and think carefully about the terminology that you use.

Try not to be afraid of these conversations. Modelling that you are happy to talk about feelings and thoughts openly, especially if they are difficult ones, shows your child that they are not too scary or hard to handle. Instead, you are demonstrating that support is available, that you are there for them, you are happy to talk about anything and you can get through this together. 

If your child is in the difficult situation of having experienced the suicide of a friend or schoolmate, keep talking openly. Research shows that knowing someone who has died through suicide is a risk factor, especially for people who are already experiencing distress. Schools should have a crisis response plan in place for this sad eventuality, offering support and reassurance to their whole school community, not just to the close friends of the person who has died. The Samaritans offers a free support service to schools called Step by Step, which provides downloadable resources or a trained advisor during the first days and weeks. 

There are various excellent helplines for young people who feel suicidal, which all families and schools should be aware of. Papyrus offers a hopeline for young people experiencing suicidal thoughts and the YoungMinds textline is available 24/7. Many different kinds of organisations are using World Suicide Prevention Day as an opportunity to shine a light on this issue. Irish theatre company, Field Day, have produced a moving film called Stay Alive, which I urge you to watch. Imagined as a direct message to someone considering suicide, its aim is to encourage the viewer to reevaluate their worth. The message of hope is one that we can all strive to promote.

- Is Your School Tooled Up? -

Parents in Tooled Up schools have access to a huge range of evidence-based resources that can help to build children’s self-esteem and guide them towards seeking help. To make sure that your child knows who to turn to when they feel down, we encourage all parents to download our Who is There for Me activity to fill in together. Our Wellbeing Journal is a great way to build resilience and encourage children to develop and maintain a positive mindset. We also have numerous resources on the importance of sleep and depression, including podcast interviews (plus exclusive summary notes) with world-leading researchers.

We know that having a history of repeated self-harm is the biggest predictor of suicide in children. If you think that your child might be self-harming, read our tips for parents on self-harm and download our list of organisations, apps and resources that you or your child can reach out to in times of need. If your child is struggling with self-harm, it is important to have a clear safety plan in place. Our template is designed to help struggling teens think about who is there for them and consider their coping strategies.

We also have a comprehensive list of sources of support for mental health and wellbeing, which all families should keep to hand. Please remember that Tooled Up resources should not be used as a replacement for clinical advice – always speak to a medical professional if you are worried.

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Have a great week.