Warning signs from children at risk of suicide can be missed because intuitively adults don’t make a connection between children and suicide, psychologist Dr Lyn O’Grady will tell the 20th International Mental Health Conference on the Gold Coast this week (31 July – 2 August).
Dr Lyn O’Grady, Manager of Strategic Projects at the Australian Psychological Society (APS) will speak at the Conference about working with children and young people who express suicidal ideation.
Dr O’Grady says, “There has been concern about youth suicide for some time now, but suicide risk in children has not received the attention it deserves.
“People find thinking about children and suicide confronting because there is still the notion that childhood is an innocent, safe and happy time. But suicidal ideation in children as young as seven does happen.”
“However there is also a lot we can do about it. Thinking about the needs of children and really listening to them means there is an opportunity to hear their distress and build better relationships with them. This is really key to minimising suicide risk.”
Kids Helpline data show children start making contact from the age of seven in relation to suicide, with numbers rapidly increasing between the ages of 11 and 14. In 2018, 10 per cent of calls from children aged 5 – 12 years were suicide related.
Dr O’Grady says a number of factors can increase the risk of suicidality in children and young people, including distress related to family and school, challenges with peers and underlying mental health difficulties. “No single factor leads to suicide, but rather a combination of factors.”
“The younger the child the more school and family play a significant role in their life, so they can be very sensitive to changes and stresses within the family and school. As they get older, friends and other situations come into play.”
She says common stresses include family breakdown or conflict, moving house, changing schools, learning or performance problems (either perceived or real), interpersonal problems with peers and being in trouble at school.
“We need to be alert to what is happening for children when there are changes in families or problems at school. We need to really listen to children, take their concerns seriously and support them. Even young children do get distressed.”
Dr O’Grady says parents know their child’s normal behaviour and a change in that behaviour could signal distress. “They could be a bit quieter than normal, a bit louder, or there could be a change in their eating or sleeping habits or little things you tune into. It doesn’t have to be that they are telling you they want to die.”
She says when children are trying to talk to us, or say they want to die, it is important not to dismiss them with responses such as: Don’t be silly, you don’t understand that, or stop copying what you’ve heard someone say.
“They might have heard someone else talk about suicide, but they are still mentioning it for a reason, it’s not just that they’re trying to get attention in a superficial way.”
“You might say: I’m sorry you feel that way, what’s happened, what’s going on? It might also mean asking them about whether they’ve tried to do anything to harm themselves.”
“That’s a really hard question to ask children, but if they are planning something they will tell you.”
Dr O’Grady says the main thing is to make the child feel supported and validated; for them to know you are hearing what they are saying, you want to help them, and can help them. And that together you will work out what is happening.
She says talking with the school to jointly work out what’s going on can also be a good idea.
2016 Kids Helpline research showed young people did try to talk to teachers and parents about how distressed they were feeling. It also showed that the younger the children the more likelihood they hadn’t got the support they needed, so it hadn’t been taken seriously.
Dr O’Grady says parents should seek help so they are not alone with the issue. That may be working with the school or seeking professional support from a psychologist.
Psychologists are trained to work with families to encourage increased support for children who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts.
“Research shows parents often blame themselves or feel guilty and responsible, which can be paralysing. But finding out a child is struggling is actually a great opportunity to do something about it, says Dr O’Grady.”
In an article published in the June 2019 edition of InPsych, Dr O’Grady outlined four key factors which may protect children from suicide:
1. Strong family relationships;
2. Early identification and treatment of children with psychological disorders, particularly depression;
3. Efforts to reduce contagion following a suicide; and
4. Adults not dismissing early warning signs due to intuitive inconsistency between children and suicide.
Dr O’Grady is conducting a workshop for mental health practitioners on Working Effectively with Children and Young People Who Express Suicidal Ideation, at the International Mental Health Conference, 31 July – 2 August, on the Gold Coast.