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Coping with grief when a child attempts (or completes) suicide

Coping with grief when a child attempts (or completes) suicide
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In the US military, the Purple Heart medal is awarded to a soldier who is wounded in battle, or who later dies of those wounds.

In the years of writing this blog, I have shared practical information on behavior and treatment, and offered encouragement and hope for parents.  But hope and information cannot soften the impact of this horrible statistic:  The mortality rates of teens with mental disorders are 3 to 4 times more deadly than most childhood cancers, and the statistics only measure those deaths by suicide:  Mental illness more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults.

Death by suicide seems especially tragic because it appears to be a choice, and while we tell ourselves that mental illness is the cause, it’s not the same as a car accident being the cause or a tumor being the cause.  Unsuccessful suicide attempts are no less traumatic, like a cancer that keeps returning, because you can’t come to terms with a “maybe.”  A parent is held hostage by the anticipation of loss, a relentless moment-by-moment fear that your child will attempt again in the future until they are successful.  It’s an emotional ride one’s subconscious never ever forgets, and it becomes your PTSD.  You can carry it quietly with you for decades, until a sneak attack, when you find yourself overreacting to a news story, a scene in a movie, or a conversation with a friend.

My PTSD ambushed me recently.  I was attending an evening class when suddenly a person next to me slammed down her cell phone, exclaimed “Oh my God!” and quickly grabbed up her things and dashed out.  I followed to check on her and see if I could help with something.  As she speed-walked to her car, she said her daughter had texted that she swallowed a poison because she was upset, but is now sorry and wants help.  I got back to the classroom in shock, trembling, and completely unable to focus.  It had been many years since I had received a similar message, but it felt like it had just happened again that moment.

You are not alone if you’ve ever secretly felt it would be a relief if your child ended their life, bringing peace to you both.  (And you wouldn’t be a bad parent, either)

But death is more than self-inflicted suicide.  You face a death of hope when child with a serious mental disorder that takes a long slow trajectory through addictions, high risk behaviors, and unstable reactions to life’s many insults.  Families like ours bear witness but can’t intervene, or interventions don’t work.  All we can do is wait and hope and do what we can for our child, day by day, and banish thoughts of a different future.  I consoled myself with the knowledge that my child was getting by, and getting by was enough.

Another type of death caregivers face is the loss of their child’s “self” as they knew it, and their future as they imagined it.  A mentally ill child or teen can morph from a fresh young person in a world that is wide open to them, to a scary being we don’t recognize as our own and cannot understand–a stranger, a changeling, a flame snuffed out too soon.  It should not be this way.  It is unfair.  It is a tragedy.  You start healing the grief when you are able to make the commitment to do the best you can anyway.  YOU HAVE EARNED YOUR PURPLE HEART.

Any serious medical condition can devastate and traumatize a child’s family, but those with mental disorders impose a complicated trauma that’s hardly possible to resolve.  The following stories are actual examples.  Ask yourself:  how does one be a loving responsible parent in these situations?

–  When her daughter attempted suicide, an overwhelmed single mother discovered that her son had been sexually abusing and cutting her for 3 years, right under her nose.  The guilt she felt was quadrupled by the guilt laid on her by others.  She didn’t know how to go forward as a mother from here, after loving but failing both children.

–  A teen girl attempted to hang herself in a very public place, and many found out about it before her parents.  Their first trauma was the call from the emergency room, their second was from the shower of doubt others laid on them:  Where were you?  Why didn’t you help her before it got this far?  What did you do to drive her to this?  And it was unending.  The daughter threw these doubts back at her parents repeatedly.  There were several inappropriate people in the community who wanted to “rescue” the daughter, including a teacher, but undermined the parents’ authority completely, and their ability to get treatment for the girl.

–  One couple devoted themselves to raising a difficult boy they adopted when he was 2.  At 9, after years of problems, he sexually assaulted a playmate, and they found themselves disgusted and repulsed.  The brokenhearted mother said she had long ago accepted that her boy would never be normal, but this was different.  She didn’t want him anymore.  (I’ve heard parents talk half-jokingly about taking their offspring to Nebraska. *)

You are not alone if you’ve ever secretly wanted your child to be taken away to never live with you again. You are not alone if you feel you’re DONE.  (And you would not be a bad parent for thinking this.)

Consciously keep the good things alive.  Display photos of the real child you know or knew, the one without the brain problems.  Keep their writing or artwork or tests scored A+.  Other parents experiencing a loss do this, whether the losses are from death by disease, or death of self due to brain damage from an accident.  Speak often of the good things they were or are, as any proud parent might, keep the memories alive.

Get out of your trance and take yourself back to here and now.  When you notice yourself caught up in a train of thought and obsessing on your fear or paranoia, get back in the room—get back to driving that car or attending that meeting or straightening the house.  Get back to noticing the people you love, get back to making those helpful plans.  Central to the philosophy of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is the concept of “Mindfulness.”

Remember this wisdom: take one day at a time.  You can handle one day, you can keep cool, do what must be done, feel accomplishment, in one day. Don’t think farther ahead.  Since you are the linchpin, the one holding up the world, you probably don’t have the luxury of taking a break, and may have to hold things together until there is time for your own healing.  The one-day-at-a-time approach is imperative.

When you’re leg is broken, you need a crutch.  When you’re heart and mind are broken, use the “crutch” of a medication for depression, anxiety, or sleep.  Do other healing things for yourself, whether exercise or therapy or asking for comfort from friends.  Acknowledge your wounds and admit this is too much handle.  You have earned your scars from bravery, so wear them as the badges of a hero.

A tragic event does not mean a tragic life.  I know a mother whose son completed suicide as a young adult in his 20’s.  She seemed remarkably cheerful and at peace with this.  She spoke lovingly of him often, and her email address comprised his birth date.  She continually did her grief work, was active in a suicide bereavement group, and often offered to visit with families facing such a loss.

— Margaret

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*  In the United States, in 2008, the state of Nebraska enacted a “Safe Haven” law to reduce the tragedy of infant child abuse and neglect.  The law allowed anyone to anonymously leave a child at a hospital with the promise that child would be cared for.  But something unexpected happened.  Parents from around the nation drove hundreds and hundreds of miles to leave their troubled older children instead.  Nebraskans eventually amended the law with strict age limits for infants only.

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Bullies, like their victims, are also at risk.

Bullies, like their victims, are also at risk.
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It’s easy to understand what it’s like to be a victim, but don’t be surprised if your understanding of bully behavior is off base.  There are many myths about who bullies are and what makes them behave the way they do.

Profile of a young bully:  this is a child or teen with a positive self-image, strong self-esteem, and little anxiety.  They are driven by a desire to be in control and they cherish power.  They also have little empathy for their victims, and appear to derive satisfaction from inflicting physical or psychological suffering on others.  A bully will defend his or her actions by blaming the victim, saying that their victims provoked them.  A bully may also have poor self-control, and be depressed or stressed in some way.  They have difficulty making friends.  It’s not black and white however–victims can become bullies–any child, boy or girl, can be a bully or be bullied if the circumstances are right

If you and your child have been a bullying victim, you may hope bullies get their just desserts.  Well, they do.

Without intervention, bullying can lead to serious academic, social, emotional and legal difficulties, which can continue into adulthood.  Bullies are even at higher risk of suicide.(see the research studies at the end of this article).

What if your child is the bully?

Think about it.  Your child may be strong and motivated, they’re active, and yet they get into trouble a lot.  They complain how others make them mad or pick on them, and yet they don’t appear to have the fears and anxieties that their victims have.  If a teacher or parent tells you that your child is a bully, it can be huge shock, and your first reaction might be to defend your child.  Perhaps you can’t imagine the child you love is hurting others, or perhaps you’ve even encouraged your child to defend themselves against others.

If it’s hard to accept, take a moment and step back and think things through.  It may not be your fault, but as a parent, you have a responsibility to both your child and to their classmates (and their parents) to intervene to stop the behavior, and make it clear that bullying is not acceptable, and that it will not be tolerated or ignored.

What parents of bullies can do

Find out if anything is bothering your child and aggravating their internal nature to act out against others.  Is there something making them feel insecure or unhappy?  Are they being ignored at home?  Picked on?  Are there other family troubles they can’t cope with?  Ask them.  Then ask yourself two important questions:

  1. What can you and your family do to reduce stress in your child’s life;
  2. What values do you want your child to learn from you, such as respect for others and empathy for others’ feelings.

Maintain an atmosphere of love and calmness at home.  Don’t allow older siblings to tease a younger child, and don’t allow destructive criticism.  Work toward an ideal home environment that is a “haven of love” for all the family.  Yes, a haven of love, that’s what it says.

Have a plan before you talk with your child, and prepare to have an open conversation and to listen closely to your own child’s point of view.  Your job is to design some disciplinary action that fits the context of your lives.

Make it very clear that bullying and aggression will not be tolerated, and spell out the consequences for all bullying behavior.  It is important to be completely consistent so that the child understands exactly what will happen if he or she repeats this behavior.

Consequences could include the loss of privileges, and especially freedoms that allow them to bully others.  For example:  if your child is allowed out to play in the evening, and is bullying other children at this time, keep them indoors for a day or a week depending on how serious the behavior is or the age of the child.  Whatever you decide on, make it extremely clear and consistent.

Next, teach your child or teen different responses to things that make them aggress against others.  They probably don’t have social skills, or options, for handling situations that make him or her upset or angry.  Some examples:  avoid kids that irritate them, or “storm out” of a situation that’s escalating instead of fighting, or write down insults and keep them hidden instead of speaking them aloud, leave a situation and get physical exercise…

Then teach your child empathy, which can be learned.  Say to them: “All people deserve respect even if you don’t like them,”  “All people have value and feelings”, “All people are different, and they don’t have to be like you or act the way you want them to.”  Remind them of others who show kindness and respect to them.  If your child can be trusted, taking care of a pet is a good way to help him or her develop the skill of empathy.

Praise and positive reinforcement are actually crucial.  Catch your child being good and offer praise as immediately as possible.  Being “good” might be about being kind, but it might also be about avoiding confrontation even if they get angry or aggressive in their thoughts but not their actions.

Allow your child or teen to earn rewards and privileges.  For a child, keep track with a calendar and stickers so that you and your child can measure each positive behavior, and then celebrate and reward it accordingly.

Let the school know what you are doing to work with your child, and ask for staff help and ideas for consistent consequences at school.  Let other parents know as well.

If bullying or other aggressive behaviors persist even after working with your child or teen, seriously consider professional mental health treatment.

Some statistics on risks to bullies

One study showed that 60% of boys who were identified as bullies in grades 6 through 9 had at least one criminal conviction by age 24 years, and between 35% and 40% of these children had three or more criminal convictions by that same age.

Much bullying occurs in schools.  Dr. Joyce Nolan Harrison, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine said, “Studies show [bullying is] particularly common in grades 6 through 10, when as many as 30% of students report they’ve had moderate or frequent involvement in bullying,” she says.

According to international studies, bullying is common and it affects from 9% to 54% of all children.  In the United States, many believe bullying can push victims to acts of violence, such as the Columbine High School massacre.

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are almost 4 times as likely as others to be bullies.  And, in an intriguing corollary, the children with ADHD symptoms were almost 10 times as likely as others to have been regular targets of bullies prior to the onset of those symptoms, according to the report in the February 2008 issue of the Journal Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology.

If you are the parent of a victim

If schools don’t have the resources to deal with bullying, parents need to take matters into their own hands.  Enlist the help of all the other parents of bullied children.  “Parents have to work as a group,” explains Dr. William Pollack, professor psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.  “One parent is a pain in the [butt].  A group of parents can be an educational experience for school authorities.”

One thing you shouldn’t do, Pollack says, is call up the bully’s parents.  “You have no idea of what is going on in that kid’s home,” he says.  “He may get hell for bullying your kid — or he may be told to keep it up.”

Armor your child by describing ways they can protect themselves.  Avoid the places where bullying happens (bathroom, lunch, playground) or always bring a friend.

Help the bullied kids find each other.  “If there are a bunch of them together, they can stand the bully down,” Dr. William Pollack says.  “They don’t have to beat the bully up.  They just have to say, ‘Why are you treating my friend this way?’  The bully will often move on.”

Inform teachers and school staff in writing of your concern, or volunteer in your child’s classroom(s).

– – – – –

Bullying and suicide. A review.  (excerpt)
Authors: Kim, Y.S.; Leventhal, B. International Journal of Adolescent Medical Health; pp: 133-54;  Vol(Issue): 20(2), 2008

Researchers at Yale School of Medicine believe they’ve found a connection between bullying, being bullied, and suicide in children.  Bullying, the most common type of school violence, has been frequently associated with a broad spectrum of behavioral, emotional, and social problems.  This paper provides a systematic review of 37 studies, from 13 countries, that were conducted in children and adolescents, and that examined the association between bullying experiences and suicide, with an emphasis on the strengths and limitations of the study designs.  (Suicide is third leading cause of mortality in children and adolescents in the United States of America and around the world.)  Despite methodological and other differences and limitations, it is increasingly clear that any participation in bullying increases the risk of suicidal ideations and/or behaviors in a broad spectrum of youth.

Not just the victims were in danger: “The perpetrators who are the bullies also have an increased risk for suicidal behaviors,” said lead author, Dr. Y.S. Kim.

Many adults scoff at bullying and say, “Oh, that’s what happens when kids are growing up,” according to Kim, who argues that bullying is serious and causes major problems for children, and that it should be taken seriously and addressed.

Email: young-shin.kim@yale.edu

– – – – –

Kids with ADHD more likely to bully  (excerpt)
By Linda Carroll, MSNBC contributor Jan. 29, 2008 URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22813400/

For one year, a study followed 577 children in the 4th grade, in a community near Stockholm.  The researchers interviewed parents, teachers and children to determine which kids were likely to have ADHD.  Children showing signs of the disorder were then seen by a child neurologist for diagnosis.  The researchers also asked the kids about bullying.

“The results underscore the importance of observing how kids with ADHD symptoms interact with their peers,” says study co-author Dr. Anders Hjern, a professor in pediatric epidemiology at the University of Uppsala in Stockholm.  These kids might be making life miserable for their fellow students.  Or it might turn out that the attention problems they’re exhibiting could be related to the stress of being bullied.

“You can’t learn if you’re being bullied, if every day you’re frightened of how you’re going to be treated,” says William Pollack, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

As for the bullies, they often need help with other issues, Pollack says.  “It’s not uncommon, for instance, to find that the aggressor is acting out because he’s depressed.  And often, the kids who are doing the bullying have been bullied themselves,” he adds.

Unfortunately though, treating ADHD won’t remedy bullying because “drugs for the condition impact a child’s ability to focus in school but not the aggression that could lead to bullying,” says Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry and director of the Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic at Yale University, and president of the American Psychological Association.

Bullying happens most at school.  The best solution for bullying is for schools to develop programs that help both the bullies and the bullied, experts say.

– – – – –

Hyperactive Girls Face Problems As Adults, Study Shows (excerpt)
by Nathalie Fontaine, René Carbonneau, Edward Barker, Frank Vitaro, Martine Hébert, Sylvana Côté, Daniel Nagin, Mark Zoccolillo and Richard Tremblay, March 2008, Journal Archives of General Psychiatry, and ScienceDaily (Mar. 20, 2008).

A 15-year longitudinal study found that girls with hyperactive behavior (restlessness, jumping up and down, a difficulty keeping still or fidgety), and girls exhibiting physical aggression (fighting, bullying, kicking, biting or hitting) were found to have a high risk of developing adjustment problems in adulthood.

Young girls who are hyperactive are more likely to get hooked on smoking, under-perform in school or jobs and gravitate towards mentally abusive relationships as adults, according to a joint study by researchers from the University de Montréal and the University College London (UCL).

The study followed 881 Canadian girls from the ages of six to 21 years to see how hyperactive or aggressive behavior in childhood could affect early adulthood.  The research team found that one in 10 girls monitored showed high levels of hyperactive behavior.  Another one in ten girls showed both high levels of hyperactive and physically aggressive behavior.

According to UCL lead researcher, Dr. Nathalie Fontaine.  “This study shows that hyperactivity combined with aggressive behavior in girls as young as six years old may lead to greater problems with abusive relationships, lack of job prospects and teenage pregnancies.”

“Our study suggests that girls with chronic hyperactivity and physical aggression in childhood should be targeted by intensive prevention programs in elementary school…  Programmers targeting only physical aggression may be missing a significant proportion of at-risk girls.  In fact, our results suggest that targeting hyperactive behavior will include the vast majority of aggressive girls,” said Dr. Fontaine.

“We found that about 25 per cent of the girls with behavioral problems in childhood did not have adjustment problems in adulthood, although more than a quarter developed at least three adjustment problems,” researcher Richard Tremblay said, noting additional research is needed into related social aggression such as rumor spreading, peer group exclusion.  “We need to find what triggers aggression and how to prevent such behavioral problems.”

– – – – –

Bullying and Suicide
Psychiatric Times. Vol. 28 No. 2   February 10, 2011

Childhood and adolescent bullying is recognized as a major public health problem in the Western world, and it appears to be associated with suicidality. Recently, cyberbullying has become an increasing public concern in light of recent cases associated with youth suicides that have been reported in the mass media.  Victims of bullying consistently exhibit more depressive symptoms than nonvictims; they have high levels of suicidal ideation and are more likely to attempt suicide than nonvictims.  Studies show that bullying behavior in youth is associated with depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts. These associations have been found in elementary school, middle school, and high school students. Moreover, victims of bullying consistently exhibit more depressive symptoms than nonvictims; they have high levels of suicidal ideation and are more likely to attempt suicide than nonvictims.

The results pertaining to bullies are less consistent. Some studies show an association with depression, while others do not. The prevalence of suicidal ideation is higher in bullies than in persons not involved in bullying behavior. Studies among middle school and high school students show an increased risk of suicidal behavior among bullies and victims. Both perpetrators and victims are at the highest risk for suicidal ideation and behavior.

 

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Mental illness more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults

Mental illness more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults
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Why isn’t everyone more upset?  A disease is killing our children and it’s worse than cancer and leukemia.  Why is pychiatric research 30-40 years behind cancer, as well as the development of pharmaceuticals and other treatment modalities?

We don’t get casseroles when our child is hospitalized for a mental health crisis

Out of curiosity, I did some research on child mortality rates from various causes, because I wanted to know how death from mental illnesses compared with other fatal illnesses of childhood and adolescence. The results were astonishing, unexpected, and disturbing.

Childhood Illness Age Range Annual Deaths per 100,000 Children
Cancers, leukemia: 5-14 yrs 2.6
Cancers, leukemia: 15-19 yrs 3.6
Childhood diabetes: Avg. 15 yrs 2.2
Anorexia: 15 – 24 years 6
Suicide ** 10 – 14 years 1.6
Suicide ** 15 – 19 years 9.5
Suicide ** 20 – 24 years 13.6

(The chart columns are in the order listed in the box, somehow I couldn’t get the right grays!)

* The starting point for the data on the medical illnesses was the website for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention www.cdcp.gov  in Atlanta; the starting point for the mental illnesses was the website for the National Institute for Mental Health, www.nimh.gov.

** The suicide data was from those with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and psychotic disorders-unspecified.  (Suicide from other mental health causes, such as borderline personality disorder and co-morbid substance abuse, is also prevalent but I could not find data for young adults.)

This screams out for a changes in attitude, policy, and investment in children’s mental health treatment!  I had no idea that death rates from mental illness were 3 to 4 times higher than the feared cancers and leukemias.  It is imperative that young people with mental health issues receive aggressive and sensitive treatment as would be expected and demanded of medical doctors treating cancer.

The data was difficult to find, requiring searches in many different medical journals and numerous articles, as nothing like it was compiled in one place.  I chose to use the cancer, leukemia, and diabetes data because deaths from all other causes were insignificant by comparison.  The death rates for cancer and leukemia are averages for the different forms of each, and in the journals they were presented together.

I welcome additions or corrections of this data from any other sources, and encourage readers to investigate this for themselves.

 

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Filed under bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, mental illness, mental illness, parenting, psychiatry, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, suicide, teenagers