It’s a small thing to reach out and ask a simple question. It can come from a friend or classmate, a teacher or coach, a neighbor or someone at church, but it can make a world of difference to a young person considering suicide.
“I’m worried about you. Are you OK?”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth between the ages of 15 and 24. In Kentucky, 8 percent of Kentucky high school sophomores – that’s 1 in every 12 students – say they attempted suicide in 2015.
On KET’s Connections, host Renee Shaw explored youth suicide prevention with licensed clinical psychologist Julie Cerel, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and president of the American Association of Suicidology. She also spoke with Courtney Parr, a college student who got treatment for her depression and now helps others considering suicide.
Courtney Parr describes it as a tape playing in her head. The recording said members of her family never graduate high school, they die at an early age from drug addiction, and that she was destined to a similar fate.
Life for Parr was indeed difficult. She never knew her father, and her mother overdosed in 2007. Parr shuffled through different foster homes, some good, some bad, and she battled depression. Yet she still knew she wanted change the script that played in her head.
Parr did make it to college, but the peer pressure of fitting in led to a panic attack. That’s when a friend in her dorm asked the simple question: Are you OK?
“I said, I don’t know. I feel like I’m going crazy,” Parr recalls.
The next day, Parr asked her boyfriend’s mother for help. She was able to get Parr into treatment and on the path to recovery.
“Now I can tell other people I went through this depression, I felt I was about to die or I needed to,” says Parr. “I was just going through all these emotions and didn’t know how to explain them or express them or who to talk to.”
Recognizing a Child in Need of Help
Psychologist and UK professor Julie Cerel says it’s important for young people to hear stories like the one Parr has to tell.
“The vast majority of people that attempt suicide and survive, go on to live lives that don’t end in suicide,” Cerel says. “This whole message of hope that even when people get to the point where they’ve attempted to end their lives, they can be hopeful and they can lead a great life.”
Getting the word out to young girls is especially important, says Cerel, because the suicide death rate for that demographic has been increasing over the last decade. She says a number of factors may be at play, including bullying, substance abuse and drug addiction, easy availability firearms and other lethal means, media depictions that glamorize suicide, and lack of access to mental health care.
About half of adults in the commonwealth know someone who has taken their own life, according to Cerel. She says it’s a myth that committing suicide is a good way to seek revenge against those who have wronged you.
“The reality is there’s never anyone left behind after a suicide who is OK with it,” says Cerel. “People grieve forever.”
Kentucky has been proactive at trying to prevent suicides among young people, Cerel says. The state has received several federal grants to train mental health professionals as well as teachers and other school personnel how to recognize a change in student’s behavior and intervene with a potentially suicidal child.
“It’s amazing that Kentucky is one of only a handful of states that has a requirement for mental health providers, social workers, psychologists, counselors to have specific training in suicide assessment and treatment,” she says. “But we need to go further and make sure that the training that therapists get is good training and evidenced-based training.”
Cerel encourages all adults to be on the look out for a good student or athlete who suddenly doesn’t care about his or her performance. Other indicators can be a young person who experiences a relationship break up or starts to give away prized possessions.
If a child talks about harming him or herself, a friend or adult should act immediately. Cerel recommends calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Operators there can provide referrals to local resources, do short-term crisis counseling, or address an actual emergency. Crisis counselors are also available by texting 741741.
But even a child who is constantly irritable or angry for several weeks may need an intervention. That’s when the simple question of “are you OK?” can be effective. Cerel says it’s important for children to know that someone notices them, values them, and is willing to talk with them during difficult times. She even encourages young people to reach out to their peers, and to not fear asking an adult for help on behalf of a friend who is suicidal.
“It’s better to risk losing the friendship than losing the life of a friend,” Cerel says.
Shut Down But Not Shut Out
Courtney Parr says she would “shut down” when she was in the depths of her depression. She says she didn’t intend to shut other people out when that happened. It was simply her way of crying out for help.
“It just takes one person [to notice],” says Parr. “If they know someone else is out there that loves them, even though they’re going through all of this, then they will eventually open up and they will express how they feel.”
“Once you find that person, it’s a lot easier to cope with things.”
Parr says she still has her struggles, but she’s learned how to recognize and respond to the symptoms of a potentially debilitating depression. She says she will immediately call a friend, say a prayer, or read her Bible to help shift her thinking to a better place.
Now a college senior studying social work, Parr says she wouldn’t change anything about her past because it’s made her into who she is today – a person who can talk about her difficulties and emotions and the thoughts of suicide she once had.
“I couldn’t see myself actually being able to help anyone because I had so many problems,” says Parr. “But now I am helping others and I am making a difference, even though I felt the way I did and even though I went through mental health issues.”