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Strengthening Suicide Prevention Strategies

By Martha Rodriguez, LCSW

Now more than ever, we need to focus on efforts geared toward suicide prevention. As we navigate through this difficult, complex, and uncertain time, we must be concerned with how this crisis can lead to a rise in suicides. Anyone facing life stressors can be affected and struggle with suicidal thoughts and attempts; it is a common myth to think that only those suffering with mental illness will attempt suicide or have suicidal thoughts.

While we explore possible interventions and strategies to suicide prevention, I invite you to consider revisiting some of the strategies and interventions already in place to ensure equitable screenings, greater research/resources to support young children struggling with suicide, and increasing awareness as it pertains to language and suicide.

Equitable Screening Practices, Connection to Services
There is no doubt mental health screenings create opportunities for identification of mental health conditions; yet while screenings are essential, more so is connecting individuals with services after the needs are identified. Several organizations, including schools, are working diligently to increase access to screenings.

This is great, of course. But if they fail to provide services after having identified there is a concern or problem, then what is the point?

This scenario also can lead to liability. Those providing screenings should be equipped to meet the needs of the participants. We must do a better job at connecting families with community resources once screened. You can tell a person they have a problem or are suffering from an illness, but what happens after this? Most people do not know how to access mental health services. This may sound unbelievable, but it is very real. What is the follow-up after these assessments occur? These are questions we need to consider in order to improve efficacy and ensure the goals of screenings are being met.

Another common problem is linking individuals and families with mental health professionals they feel can really help them. What does this mean? We need to do a better job at ensuring resources and support are accessible to all.

Health care professionals should consider becoming competent in religious and faith practices in mental health; faith-based strategies and supports are extremely important. Mental health professionals need to become competent in religion and spirituality, not as the primary focus of treatment, but rather, combined with psychotherapy. This can be achieved through discussions with both the client and the therapist so these supports are provided in a responsible and respectful manner. This is key in the fight against suicide: Eliminating any existing barriers such as language, faith, religion, cultural practices, gender, and race inequities.

If we ensure individuals are connected with qualified and competent care, these screenings, along with the connection of services, can serve in the fight against suicide. I cannot stress this enough, as I have experienced far too often the identification of students and families with mental health conditions ranging from anxiety to depression. Along with these conditions, many struggle with suicidal ideation.

Yet these families, once identified, do not seem to get the help they need. For some, their culture and religious beliefs serve as barriers to treatment. They also experience a lack of respect from the mental health professionals who are supposed to help them, as they lack education on how their own culture and religious beliefs affect their perception and ultimate acceptance of these conditions and need for treatment. Barriers, such as race, religion, and culture, that may prevent equity can be addressed with culturally competent practices.

Suicide Is Not Age Discriminate
As we work to identify strategies to consider in the fight against suicide, we must also challenge the idea that young children do not struggle with suicidal ideation. We must do a better job at changing this belief because suicide does not discriminate.

Anyone of any age can experience depression and struggle with suicidal ideation. Children experience depression, and can struggle with suicidal ideation and/or attempts. I have supported many families with young children who suffer from depression, including children as young as the age of 7 who significantly struggle with suicidal ideation.

While the children struggled, so did the families who pursued resources and support and found that minimal research is being done to identify and support young children. They also all shared common concerns and reactions to their child's experience with suicidal ideation and/or attempts at suicide such as, “I did not know a young child could get depressed, or even think of hurting themselves. I do not understand why my child is so sad; there is no reason for it.”

To these families, depression or suicide was something that occurred only to teens and adults. How could it be that a young child would have such deep emotions and destructive thoughts? Why would a child be depressed or want to attempt suicide?

Many of these families also struggled with missing the signs their child expressed, while others shared that their child showed no signs. We need to educate families on signs and symptoms of suicide. Families need to have a greater understanding of what suicide is, and how to help their young children. More research needs to address factors contributing to the development of suicide in young children. Education on suicide and suicide prevention should also occur early on; elementary school students should not be excluded from efforts.

Why Language Matters in Suicide Prevention
While we work on creating equitable screening practices and dispelling the myth that young children do not struggle with suicide, education must be geared toward language and the impact it has on those struggling with suicide. Quite often, words are used when referring to suicide that can significantly harm those families who have suffered a loss or those who are struggling—words such as “commit,” “completed,” and “unsuccessful.” These words should not be used when referencing suicide.

If we do not have conversations about the power of language, these words will continue to be used. Many times, individuals are not even aware these words can be harmful. If education and awareness are provided, this can aid in suicide prevention and support those who need it most.

So often there seems to be insensitive language and messages such as, “How could they do something so selfish? They made a choice to harm themselves. It is all in their heads.” This is hurtful, as is the thought that an individual would want to harm themselves or hold any desire to struggle with suicidal ideation. Families need to be empowered and feel that we can treat and prevent suicide. But we are all part of this treatment and prevention. One word can save a life; we must be vigilant of how we speak and support those suffering.

Suicide prevention is a complex, multifaceted effort. We can begin the battle by having honest conversations and providing families with multiple resources. Empowering families through education will give them many of the tools they need to treat and prevent suicide. These strategies are only part of the many interventions we need to impart when supporting those working on suicide. Each individual and family will have their own needs, and the resources should be targeted toward the individual and their family.

— Martha Rodriguez, LCSW, is service manager of recovery at Broward County Public Schools.