A+ Advice for Parents

Teenager's Suicide Leaves Couple's Daughter Distraught

Q: Two teens in our community committed suicide recently. One was our daughter's friend and she's still very distraught, even though she had counseling at school. I think she's depressed and needs more counseling. My husband doesn't. He skipped the funeral because he said it "celebrated cowardice." I want our daughter to see a psychologist, but he thinks that talking about it can rationalize suicide. What to do?

A: Get the referral. "Many teenagers need support to understand the grieving process and move on in a healthy way," says adolescent psychologist Stephen Wallace, director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.

When a community loses a young person to suicide, parents should make an explicit effort to talk with their teens about what happened. Yet some worry that they'll plant the idea of suicide simply by raising it in conversation.

"This is false and inhibits vital dialogue and leaves young people at greater risk," says Wallace.

Counseling can help. But don't ask the counselor to do all the work. Continue to observe and talk with your daughter. While no studies show that suicide is contagious, "suicides among youth may be suggestive to those already contemplating self-harm. Most teens are not -- they're simply trying to grapple with something very hard to understand," says Wallace.

What do you say to your daughter? "Reinforce your love and genuine concern for her health, safety and welfare," suggests Wallace. "Reassure her that her feelings about the loss are normal. She also needs to hear that things will get better.

"Young people, short on life experience, often believe that the way they feel when distressed or depressed might be the way they will feel forever. It's critical to explain that all people, at some point in their lives, experience loss and emotional pain, and that there's a light at the end of the tunnel she can't see yet. Assure her that counseling can help."

A good counselor can determine whether your daughter is depressed and if she is, suggest appropriate treatments, advises Wallace.

Ninety percent of people who attempt suicide suffer from psychological ailments, and there are effective treatments for most of them, says Alan Berman, former president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

Teen suicides are a serious national problem. "It's the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, and the sixth for 5- to 14-year-olds," says Wallace.

Wallace urges parents and teachers to look for signs such as declining school performance; social problems; substance abuse; neglect of appearance and responsibilities; appearing or talking about feeling sad, hopeless, bored or overwhelmed; outbursts, severe anger or irritability; talking about feeling anxious or worried; losing interest in activities; and hurting oneself, such as cutting or severe dieting. (For more information, go to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry website, aacap.org.)

Experts believe that most youth suicides are the result of temporary feelings of helplessness -- things we can identify and help with if we are observant and stay in close touch with our kids.

"Suicide isn't contagious, but it is preventable," says Wallace.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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