How Parents, Teachers Can Check Mental Health, Avoid Suicide

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A tragedy struck Broward County this week: Thursday, a 17-year-old student died by suicide at Fort Lauderdale High School.

The incident left behind a shocked and heartbroken community. To deal with the grieving process, social workers and family therapists will be available from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday and Sunday at the school, located at 1600 NE 4th Ave.

The incident is also a reminder to pay attention to the mental health crisis of young people. The school will hold a parent and student wellness summit from 6-8:30 p.m. next Tuesday.

Nationally, suicide ranks among the leading causes of death among 15- to 19-year-olds. In 2021, 44% of high school students reported feeling constantly sad or hopeless in the past year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We spoke to an expert about what teachers, parents and other adults can do to prevent suicide and help troubled children and teens.

Alan Mednick lost his daughter to suicide ten years ago. He is now a board member of the Southeast Florida Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, trained in suicide awareness and intervention skills.

He shared these five tips:

1. Look for behavior changes

Parents and teachers should look for any behavior change that lasts longer than two weeks in adolescents and children.

These can include loss of appetite, lack of interest in favorite activities, sleeping too much or too little, sudden drug use, recklessness, poor hygiene tendencies and poor grades.

2. Ask them honestly

If adults notice strange behavior, they should ask about it.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Hey, sometimes people who are thinking about suicide fail classes. Are you thinking of suicide? Ask them right away. That’s good,” advised Mednick.

People shouldn’t fear the word “suicide,” Mednick said, because evidence shows they won’t convey the idea to others just by saying it. But it might allow those who are thinking about it to voice their concerns.

3. Listen, listen, listen

When asking, parents and teachers should focus entirely on what the children or teenagers are saying.

Turn off the TV, silence the phones, put the book away. Look them in the eye and listen – don’t respond right away.

If they show signs of trouble, take them seriously. Don’t reject them.

If they are not ready to disclose the issues immediately, adults can let them know that they will be there to listen to them at all times, and they won’t get angry or judge them because of it, a Mednick said.

4. Connect with your friends and classmates

After Mednick’s daughter died by suicide, her younger son also began having suicidal thoughts. Mednick and his wife found out because his sons’ friends contacted them.

“The fact that his friends reached out to tell us that was crucial. I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t,” he said.

“It’s not about becoming buddy-buddy with them; it’s just letting friends know, “Hey, if you see anything wrong, let us know.” Just have an open dialogue.

Teachers can also foster a safe environment where students feel comfortable raising such concerns.

5. Share professional resources

What’s most important is knowing there’s relief at a call, a meeting or a click, Mednick said.

Adults should encourage children to meet with a counsellor, therapist, psychologist or other specialists.

The local 2-1-1 line provides all types of assistance. The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8 helps those at risk for mental health. Both lines are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are confidential, anonymous and free.

For additional assistance, contact browardschools.com/student-services.

For specific advice on how to be there for a child who has lost a friend or classmate to suicide, read this booklet “Children, Teens, and Suicide Loss,” created by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in partnership with the Dougy Center and The National Center for Grieving Children and Families.

Jimena Tavel covers higher education for the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. She is a bilingual journalist with triple nationality: Honduran, Cuban and Costa Rican. Born and raised in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, she moved to Florida when she was 17. She earned her journalism degree from the University of Florida in 2018 and joined the Herald shortly after.

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