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What you need to know about teen mental health and suicide, for patients and loved ones

July 28, 2017

Syed Ali Imran Bokhari, M.D., Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has listed suicide as the second leading cause of adolescent loss of life between the ages of 15 and 19. And there is no mistaking—teen suicide is on the rise.

Here are eight things to know to help young patients, their parents and your own family:

  1. If parents notice signs indicating their teen may be going through depression, anxiety or substance use, or exhibiting behaviors that are not the teen’s norm, they need to seek medical help for their teen. Indicators range from loss of interest in hobbies, being more isolated, not engaging in typical family activities, to erratic eating or sleeping patterns, to a decline in academic performance.
  2. Some parents think because their teen has a smile on his or her face, everything must be OK. Unfortunately, they miss obvious signals that might otherwise suggest their teen is struggling, as well as those signals which may not be obvious, such as stress at school and any cyberbullying.
  3. Strong communication between parents and teens is critical. Improving relationships allows parents to learn if a teen actually is doing all right. Parents should encourage their teens to open up and talk about issues they face. Simply saying, “I’m here for you” truly is important.
  4. Sometimes both teens and parents get overwhelmed. In those situations, teens may think if they “disappear or sleep and never wake up,” they will not have to face the challenge or stressor. Parents should ask, “Do you think any such thought has ever crossed your mind?” Early on, parents have to start the conversation in a positive way. Parents must talk about what is positive about the teen, and remind him or her they are there for support.
  5. Child and adolescent psychiatrists generally agree: There is no designated age to start talking to a teen about suicide. The conversation should begin as a child is growing, particularly if parents notice a change in behavior. Watch for irritability and anger in children/teens—not lasting just for a day, but lasting for days to weeks on end. This should prompt parents to consult a mental health professional. In children and teens, depression and anxiety manifests as anger and irritability when they are feeling depressed or anxious.
  6. Some teens today are victims of cyberbullying. Many teens are now faced with dual challenges, both in person (e.g., physically being excluded at school, amongst the crowd or in the neighborhood) and online through social media. Teens may be told derogatory comments, which can lead to low self-esteem, lack of confidence and eventually depression. They may not share that information with parents because they fear losing the privilege of having a cell phone or electronic device. So, they may keep it to themselves, in turn, suffering and hurting to the point they engage in maladaptive, self-harm behaviors.
  7. Facilitate and allow a teen to learn about his or her mental illness. There are sources like the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which has resource links for families to access information in different languages. They have PDF handouts on topics such as suicide, anxiety and sexuality.
  8. Today, some teens are losing connectedness with their families and do not seek guidance and coaching in social and life skills. Parents need to make eye contact with their teen while talking with them. I often suggest parents and children spend time playing a board game together. Parents should show their teen they are there for them to promote trust building.

Dr. Bokhari is on staff at NCH for psychiatric services through Advance Psychiatry & Counseling. Please call the intake line at 847-618-4100 for help. Learn about Behavioral Health Services.