24-hours ago in Michigan a 13-year old shot and killed himself in the bathroom at school. He took a gun and intentionally shot himself in the head. There will be a lot of continued and necessary discussion about gun control and safety in school. I’ll leave that to others. I’m still sitting with the fact that a 13-year old child is dead by his own hand.
Suicide is the ultimate act of hopelessness. It’s the final act of desperation and someone saying, “I can’t live like this anymore and I don’t know another way.” As a therapist suicide is often in my mind and in my world. I know the darkness that people face, the hopelessness they experience, and the thoughts about ending their lives. Adults understand feeling hopeless and despair as we have all felt those feelings at some point in our lives. But we don’t like to acknowledge that children also have those emotions. Hopelessness doesn’t only exist for adults but it is present for our children and adolescents too.
As adults it is easy to dismiss the intensity of children’s feelings. Their first loves are considered “puppy love”, not real love. Tweens and teenagers are melancholy and moody, not hopeless and living in darkness. But because of this darkness and not seeing another way out, a 13-year old is dead. A mother and father are without a son. Grandparents are without a grandson, teachers without a student, and classmates without a friend.
Unlike adults, children don’t have the time and experience to know that things can change. Feelings and situations aren’t permanent and they can be different. Sowhat can we do to help them?
First, believe them. Whether the person is 5, 15, or 50 years old, believe them when they say they feel hopeless.
Second, ask them if they think about hurting themselves. Oftentimes people worry that asking about suicide will put the idea in someone’s head. Actually, the opposite is true. Talking about the proverbial pink elephant in the room doesn’t place it there. Instead it lets the other person know that you see it too. You see how hurt they are and that they are experiencing an overwhelming amount of pain. Naming the pink elephant, asking if they think about hurting themselves, is a relief for them and another important step in helping them.
Finally, get professional help. Sometimes people worry about being labeled or stigmatized for seeking professional help. While I understand those concerns (see Why African-Americans Don’t go to Therapy) they are not the immediate priority. If someone is hopeless and thinking about hurting or killing themselves, safety must be the first concern. A 13-year old is dead and I imagine that his parents would much rather navigate mental health care for their son today instead of planning his funeral.
There are many resources available to assist you with having this conversation (readings about Suicide Prevention). If you or someone you know have thoughts of hurting or killing yourself, reach out for support now (Mayo Clinic, Suicide Hotline, National Suicide Prevention Hotline). In Philadelphia the Suicide & Crisis Intervention Hotline number is 215-686-4420.