Youth Suicide….. A Mental Health Moment (Part 1)

Bernadette Joy Graham,
Licensed Mental Health Therapist

By Bernadette Joy Graham, MA, LPCC, CCHt, Licensed Mental Health Therapist
The Truth Contributor

I remember as a child hearing from my grandmother, my father and many other adults that children should be seen and not heard.  At that time, I took it to mean I could be in the room with adults but not allowed in the conversation nor was I to interrupt the conversation.  I was often times told to just “go away and play, adults are talking.”

Unfortunately, that old school style has paved the way for children to not have a voice.  Youth lost a space to express their thoughts, feelings and definitely not their pain and suffering whether by abuse and/or trauma.

Many of those children grew into adults carrying severe pain, sometimes so severe they could not endure life and attempted or completed a suicide.  This is not new news being brought to the table and the statistics have continued to grow throughout the decades but currently it is not only adults taking their own lives, it is also youth, some as young as age six.  It is happening worldwide and includes all genders, races and socio-economic status.

Losing a child is one of the most painful experiences not just for the parents or guardians of these young ones but also communities and schools.  In my practice I only work with ages 13 and older.  I did not choose to be trained to work with children and it is out of my scope of practice and I refer parents with younger children to Registered Play Therapists (RPTs).  These are licensed clinical therapist whose focus is solely on children and provide therapy through play as that is how children communicate and can better view the world.

In my 20 years of practice, I can proudly say I have never lost a client to suicide, not that none of them have struggled with suicidal ideation or don’t have the means when they come under my care but the majority of them have a surmount of pain that stems from their childhood.  Many of them share experiences of sexual, physical, mental and emotional abuse sometimes so extreme they were taken out of their homes.  Yet others who were not helped stated they had no one to confide in, no one to talk to, were too scared to tell anyone due to threats from their abuser or not believed and told they were making it up.

Another factor that teens face that make them vulnerable to suicide risk is due in part to the physical developmental stage they are in. Teens have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex—this area of their brain is not fully developed until their mid-20’s.  An underdeveloped prefrontal cortex leads to increased impulsivity and they are unlikely to think about their actions longer than an adult.

Rates of suicide of youth, according to U.S. News, were higher during the pandemic globally. That report noted that within the United States, Georgia, Virginia, New Jersey, Indiana and Oklahoma were higher than other states. Yet no data has been shown as to why rates were higher in these states.  Across the board if you are asking yourself how in our present day with all the mental health community non-profits and increase in the importance of mental health are youth still so at risk?  From my perspective as a mental health provider, anxiety and depression mediates the relationship of childhood trauma and suicide.

While much has changed to give youth a voice with availability of school counselors and programs dedicated to assist youth challenges, at the end of the day, these youth still have to return to their home environments where they may be being abused, sit in overcrowded classrooms with an underpaid and overworked teacher and incur social media bullying.

I have asked youth personally why they are having suicidal ideation or past suicide attempts and the answers often fall into: they have no one who cares, they are unable to escape the abuse in their homes, or they have been so traumatized for so long they see it as an only way out.       When asked how do they know how to hurt themselves, quite frankly the answers are the internet such as YouTube, Tik Tok, Google or other youth.  Access to means were stated as loaded and accessible firearms in the home, drugs – prescription, over the counter and illicit street narcotics, knives, razor blades or other sharp objects and a rope, belt or other material.

In the follow-up to this mental health moment for part 2 in the September issue, you can look for a better understanding of risk and protective factors for youth suicide prevention as well as what to do in the aftermath of a youth who has completed a suicide.  The month of August schools are back in session.  Please take a mental health moment if you are responsible for a youth in any form, parent, guardian, teacher, coach or mentor and take note of the following as warning signs and resources.

  • Reach out to someone struggling to let them know they are not alone. Learn how to offer safe, non-judgmental support.
  • Have a conversation that helps reduce the stigma associated with suicide.
  • Offer support to those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
  • Take steps to increase awareness of the significance of suicide as a global concern.
  • Learn more about what can we all can do to do prevent suicide.
  • Share information about suicide prevention on your own social media platform.
  • Share this post to raise awareness of the connection between early childhood trauma and suicide.
  • Look for and report signs such as depressive symptoms, conduct disorders, withdrawal from activities, isolation, and drug/alcohol use or abuse.
  • While this is not an exhaustive list you may Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website. Call 988 which is the suicide and crisis lifeline.
  • Next month I will provide information on how to talk to the youth in your life which starts with paying attention and listening to them. Children are our responsibility and they should always be both seen and heard at all times.  To any families, parents, guardians, or friends who have lost a child to suicide you are not alone.  May you seek help and support as needed to heal and please advocate for others to save others from this traumatic experience.