Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a five-part series examining youth suicide in North Carolina. Scenes in this series may be disturbing to some readers. If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
April Quick knew her oldest child, Ash Haffner, was struggling with mental health issues, gender identity, and bullying at school — but she didn’t expect Ash to die by suicide on a snowy February night last year.
“I don’t—” she pauses to gather her words, “just really, truly, don’t know what was building up.”
Quick, a single mom, had tried to get Ash into treatment programs. They saw doctors. They asked for help. Sometimes, everything would seem fine. “Ash would have the biggest smile and everything seemed great,” Quick says. “And you wouldn’t realize how much Ash was hurting and struggling inside.”
Now, she says, it’s easy to see the warning signs she missed.
But experts say parents aren’t the only ones who need to be watching out for at-risk children and teenagers.
“Parents, obviously, have a critical role in supporting the health and well-being of their kids but it’s also important that parents and families live inside communities and communities have a very important role in supporting parents and families,” says Michelle Hughes, who co-chairs a state task force committee that studies youth suicide.
“We often feel like we should be doing it all alone and if we need to ask for help, then we’re not doing a good job. It’s actually the opposite. If you’re asking for help, you’re doing a terrific job as a parent.”
Here’s what you need to know about youth suicide:
Watch for these warning signs
Talking about or making plans for suicide
Expressing hopelessness about the future
Displaying severe/overwhelming emotional pain or distress
Showing worrisome behavioral cues or marked changes in behavior, particularly in the presence of the warning signs above
Withdrawal from or changing in social connections/situations
Changes in sleep (increased or decreased)
Anger or hostility that seems out of character or out of context
Recent increased agitation or irritability1
How you can help
Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture on the value of life.
Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
Don’t dare him or her to do it.
Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.
Get help from persons or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.2
Coming tomorrow: Why we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about suicide.
This series first appeared on EdNC.org. Used with permission.
Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.
- Wake County Public School System, Suicide Prevention. ↩
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.)
Make a safety plan
Experts say creating a safety plan, for yourself or for a friend or loved one, can help people at risk for suicide work through a difficult period. Start with these steps, and don’t be afraid to talk to a health care professional if you need additional support.
- Recognize warning signs: What sorts of thoughts, images, moods, situations, and behaviors indicate to you that a crisis may be developing? Write these down in your own words.
- Use your own coping strategies – without contacting another person: What are some things that you can do on your own to help you not act on thoughts/urges to harm yourself?
- Socialize with others who may offer support as well as distraction from the crisis: Make a list of people (with phone numbers) and social settings that may help take your mind off things.
- Contact family members or friends who may help to resolve a crisis: Make a list of family members (with phone numbers) who are supportive and who you feel you can talk to when under stress.
- Contact mental health professionals or agencies: List names, numbers, and/or locations of clinicians, local emergency rooms, crisis hotlines – carry the Lifeline number 1-800-273-8255.
- Ensure your environment is safe: Have you thought of ways in which you might harm yourself? Work with your counselor to develop a plan to limit your access to these means.[3. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. ↩