Parents and students alike are grasping for answers in Newton after two teenagers committed suicide within less than two weeks. Mental health specialists urge parents to talk with their children about the causes of suicide to make sure they don’t romanticize it, and encourage them to seek help if they are struggling.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the most important part of discussing suicide is confirming the cause of death. “Rumors can be deeply hurtful and unfair to the missing/ deceased person, their family, and their friends,” reads the foundation’s toolkit for schools on handling suicide.
The parents of the Newton girls, Katie Stack and Karen Douglas, have confirmed that their deaths were suicides. Stack was in treatment for depression. Douglas suffered from an eating disorder.
Jill Harkavy-Friedman, senior director of research at the New York-based foundation, offered these tips for answering children’s questions:
What causes suicide?
“First and foremost, help kids understand that suicide is the result of pain and despair,” she said. “Usually it’s a combination of depression, substance use, or an unusual pattern of thoughts and behaviors. It’s a result of many things coming together, a person experiencing really terrible pain, and thinking they are without other ways to handle that pain.”
What should I be feeling?
“It’s very sad and upsetting and scary for everybody,” Harkavy-Friedman said. “Parents should express their emotions openly. They should say exactly how they’re feeling, that they’re upset by it and how sad and painful it is.”
Parents should express their feelings even if they don’t have strong reactions. “Some people will have deeper feelings about it, while others might react calmly. It’s very individual,” she said. “It’s also not uncommon for somebody to be angry at somebody who kills themselves. There’s no right feeling here.”
What are appropriate ways to remember this person?
Today, the Internet can be a place to share an emotional tribute, but you have to remember comments on social media are public and there for the world to see, Harkavy-Friedman cautioned.
“You also don’t want to make it romantic that somebody was in such pain they killed themselves,” she said. “Whatever would be a right reaction for someone who died from another cause would be appropriate for someone who died by suicide. ... Negative things about the person aren’t appropriate, just like they aren’t appropriate at any time.”
The foundation recommends that schools organize a small group of students to monitor online activity around a person’s death, and to notify school leaders if they see a problem.
Ask your child, “How are you doing?”
Parents should check in with students during these times. Ask detailed questions about what’s going on in their lives, and encourage them to speak with counselors or professionals.
“If they’re worried about their child, they don’t need to wait for suicide symptoms. You need to ask how they’re doing. ... Ask about school and friends, as well as what their worries, moods, and interests are. Also check the warning signs like sleep, appetite, and energy. They don’t always know when they aren’t in a great state. They may think this is how it is for me. So the parents, teachers, and adults around need to be observant and open. Connection is important as a preventive factor.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 90 percent of those who commit suicide have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
“There are a lot of resources to help those who are struggling. That’s what makes suicide preventable. It’s really important to let people know that seeking help is a strength,” said Harkavy-Friedman.