Communication key to fighting increase in child suicide

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan health officials say there isn’t enough help for kids with mental health problems.
Beds are closing, community mental health is underfunded and there’s a shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists, said Dr. Bernard Biermann, medical director of the inpatient child and adolescent psychiatric unit at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. There’s a major crisis in treatment availability, he said.
The number of Michigan kids ages 10-14 who died by suicide doubled between 2011 and 2014, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has data. That year, 20 kids died by suicide compared to 10 kids in 2011. Michigan’s rate of 3.1 deaths per 100,000 is higher than the national average of 2.1.
The center says the number of child suicides is up for that period nationwide. In fact, suicide rates are up across all ages nationwide, according to an April report from the center.
There are lots of theories about the cause of the increase, Biermann said.
It could be a change in how suicides are reported to authorities, said Patricia Smith, a nurse who is the violence prevention program coordinator at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. She also works on the Michigan Violent Death Reporting System and expects to have updated numbers in a few months.
Rural communities have less access to care, Biermann said.
Chippewa County, for example, doesn’t have any mental health beds reserved for kids, said Bonnie Kaunisto, who delivers “mental health first aid” as office supervisor in customer services at Hiawatha Behavioral Health in Sault Ste. Marie and serves on the Chippewa County Suicide Prevention Coalition. Kids who need mental health help in Chippewa County are sent to Marquette or downstate.
Primary care physicians are often reluctant to give kids pills because of reports about depression medication actually increasing thoughts of suicide.
“On balance, it’s much much safer to treat someone for depression than to let it go untreated,” Biermann said.
The number one thing parents can do to keep kids safe is to ask the child if they’re feeling suicidal, Biermann said.
“You’re never going to put the idea into somebody’s head,” he said.
Common signs parents should look for include reclusiveness, talking about death, drawing images of death and giving away items, Kaunisto said.
Anger is also a common sign that somebody is having difficulty, but with kids it can be hard to tell because signs and symptoms can be hidden in normal adolescent behavior, Kaunisto said. But open communication makes a difference. So does being unafraid and unembarrassed to get help.
Don’t be afraid to ask the question, “Do you want to die by suicide?” Kaunisto said.
Never leave them unattended if they have the desire, plan and the means to die by suicide, Kaunisto said.
Tell them: “We’re going to do whatever we have to so that you’re alive tomorrow,” Kaunisto said.
Every kid is different, so you have to trust your gut, she said. If your child, friend or neighbor is thinking of suicide in the immediate future, take them to the emergency room, Kaunisto said.
Other options include suicide prevention hotlines such as 1-800-273-TALK, experts said.
Some crisis hotlines are also accepting text messages now, Kaunisto said.
And while cyberbullying is a concern, Kaunisto said, social media can also help. Facebook has a suicide prevention feature (
Parents can also contact their community mental health department. People who live in communities without one can try the next community over, Biermann said.
Despite the increase, it is important to remember suicide is rare, Smith said.
“We don’t want to do fear-mongering. You always want to talk about hope,” she said.

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