Source: NJ Spotlight News
While a sophomore at Red Bank Regional High School in Little Silver, Iona Leslie said they were shocked when a close friend shared suicidal thoughts. The friend “had attempted suicide multiple times before.” What followed was a series of interventions, Leslie said, including therapy, which saved the friend’s life.
The episode highlighted steps taken to address suicidal ideation, which the American Psychological Association defines as “thoughts about or a preoccupation with killing oneself.” Typically, a mix of education and quick responses to warning signs, the interventions were critical and offer a powerful lesson in how to help teens in crisis.
Leslie was one of many advocates, school officials and mental health professionals who testified last week at a New Jersey Senate Education Committee hearing on teen suicide. The hearing was in response to a tragedy last month at Central Regional High School in Ocean County, in which a teenager who attended the school took her own life.
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that 57% of surveyed high school female students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021, a significant increase from 36% in 2011. Additionally, 30% of surveyed females and 14% of male high school students said they seriously considered suicide during the past year.
Most important in preventing youth suicide is for teachers and parents — or anyone who spends time with teenagers — to learn the warning signs and the risk factors, according to Dr. Stephanie Marcello, the chief psychologist of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. They can include having a mental health disorder, using drugs or alcohol, losing a close friend to suicide, re-experiencing past trauma or abuse or having previously attempted suicide.
As for warning signs of suicide, a teenager will more often show it in his or her behavior rather than explicitly saying it verbally, explained Dr. Jennifer Chuang, the section chief of adolescent medicine at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson.
Warning signs she tends to look for include teenagers becoming more withdrawn, losing interest in hobbies and activities they used to be excited about and changing their sleeping and eating patterns. Other warning signs include a sudden drop in school performance and any signs of self-harm, like cutting.
“As adults, we like to keep on talking,” Chuang said. “But it’s really important to have an open space and to have an open ear and allow our (children) to really talk about what’s on their mind without providing our judgment and making them feel like they’re not being heard.”
Chuang added that if parents are worried that their child is at risk for suicide, they need to ask their child if they are thinking about taking their own life. “We have plenty of studies that show that by asking that does not increase a kid’s risk for suicide, but if they are thinking about suicide, then that is an opportunity that they can have intervention,” she said.