Nicky Gant is a fellow writer, blogger, and friend. She recently published this article on mental health awareness and suicide prevention for the QC Mom’s Blog. Thank you, Nicky, for allowing me to share this thorough, helpful, and compassionate resource.
Like many moms of small children, I tend to live in a bubble. I’m usually running between little league, the YMCA and preschool – everywhere I look, I see happy little people with promising futures.
But the truth is, my bubble burst a long time ago.
If it hadn’t, perhaps my heart wouldn’t have hurt quite so bad when I learned about the string of local teen suicides, which experts have described as an epidemic in Scott County. Perhaps it would have seemed like a distant problem, something that can only happen to other families.
Though thankfully, my loved one who attempted suicide as a teenager survived, he resisted treatment for his mental illness and went on to live out the devastating, all-too common effects of his condition. Witnessing the pain he’s endured has been heartbreaking and life changing to say the least.
So when I hear about kids committing suicide, it hits close to home. I wonder how many promising young people in our community are suffering in silence, contemplating suicide, self-medicating with harmful substances or making poor choices, which will impact the long-term trajectory of their lives, due to an underlying mental health condition.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:
- Of children ages 9 to 17, 21 percent have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes at least minimal impairment;
- suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in youth aged 12-17;
- 90% of those who died by suicide had an underlying mental illness;
- 50% of lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14; and
- currently **only 20 percent** of children with mental disorders receive mental health services.
These statistics make me wonder … in our close-knit community, do any of us really live in a bubble, isolated from the pain of mental illness anymore?
Fortunately, there is a lot we can ALL do to help raise awareness and generate more positive outcomes for those who are suffering.
1. Spread hope
According to NAMI, modern treatment is 70-90 percent effective, and kids with mental illness can absolutely go on to live positive, productive lives.
2. Focus on early identification
As hard as it is to think about, we should all keep an eye out for potential symptoms in our loved ones.
According to NAMI, suicide warning signs include:
- Talking about hopelessness, worthlessness, being a burden to others, feeling trapped or having no reason to live.
- Having no motivation or losing interest in activities once enjoyed.
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated.
- Sudden change in personality or behaviors.
- Giving away possessions, behaving recklessly.
- Talking about death or not being here tomorrow. Looking for ways to kill oneself such as searching online or buying a gun.
Mental illness warning signs (determined by NAMI) include:
- A sudden or persistent drop in school performance.
- Persistently aggressive behavior.
- Threats to self or others.
- Substantial mood swings.
- Hallucinations, paranoia or delusions.
- Acting very withdrawn, sad or overly anxious.
- Extreme difficulty interacting with friends and/or siblings.
- Extreme changes in sleeping and eating patterns.
- Increased or persistent use of alcohol or drugs.
3. Stop the stigma
Unfortunately, harmful misperceptions (such as associating mental illness with weakness) persist in our society, adding a layer of shame to already-suffering individuals, along with causing many to resist seeking help.
We need to spread the truth that mental illness is like any other medical condition, which requires treatment – it’s that simple.
4. Support efforts to reduce bullying
Research indicates that kids who are bullied face an increased risk of developing emotional problems.
Family and friends of one of our local suicide victims created Make a Change, the Alice Schmidt Movement to raise awareness and find solutions.
Care QC is a local organization, created to help put a stop to bullying as well.
As parents, we can serve on the PTA to make sure our schools are implementing the best possible anti-bullying programs, and we can teach our own children the importance of empathy.
5. Don’t judge, try to understand
Without treatment, the consequences of mental illness are frequently looked down upon in our society.
In addition to having a 50% chance of dropping out of high school, our mentally ill youth are likely to face long-term effects such as disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness and incarceration. In fact, 65% of boys and 75% of girls in juvenile detention facilities have an underlying mental illness, which is not being treated.
If we begin to collectively have more compassion for underlying causes of these problems, we can help more kids receive the treatment they need before they become adults, who are lost in the system.
6. Reach out and connect
Never underestimate the power of extending yourself to those affected by mental illness.
I will never forget the note I received from a high school classmate, who thanked me for expressing condolences to her after hearing that her brother committed suicide. She said it meant a lot to her because most people pretended like it didn’t happen, which added to her pain.
Even if we are uncomfortable, doing our best to reach out and express concern can help reduce the ripple effect of isolation caused by mental illness. We have the power to make a difference, just by showing we care.
7. Seek help, utilize community resources
If you are concerned about your child, start by getting a referral for psychiatric care from a pediatrician, and be sure to work closely with your school counselor.
If you don’t have insurance, please keep hope, and be aware that services may be available through United Way-funded programs, such as Family Resources, Vera French, the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, the Center for Youth and Family Solutions, Youth Service Bureau of Rock Island County, and Bethany for Children and Families. You can also reach out to faith communities for help.
Don’t give up on your quest to receive adequate care for your child, but don’t blame yourself if they refuse treatment; there are many reasons for this. All you can do is your best, and don’t forget to take care of yourself too.
8. Focus on mental health
Though we may not be able to prevent mental illness, Mayo Clinic research indicates that the effectiveness of treatment can be maximized by getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising and incorporating stress reduction techniques into daily life.
9. Educate your kids
It can be hard to talk about, but we need to empower our kids with information about suicide, mental illness and bullying, so they realize the importance of reaching out for help and identifying symptoms in their peers.
To be honest, this article was hard for me to write. A part of me wants to live in a bubble … it’s painful to think about all the great kids who are suffering, not receiving the help they need. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but I’ve seen how mental illness can shake a strong family unit to its core, and I feel a responsibility to spread awareness.
I hope this article can help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and most importantly increase hope, so we can identify more kids at the crucial choice point in their lives, when receiving treatment can most effectively put them on track to reach their full potential.
How has mental illness affected your life? Sharing your story is a great way to help others feel less alone. Do you know of additional community resources for struggling teens?