The Mom Stop: Tragedy puts focus on youth suicide
Suicide is the leading cause of death among youth in America, ages 10 to 22, and it’s on the rise.
At least 0.66 percent of hospital visits made by children in the U.S. in 2008 were linked to suicidal thoughts or attempts. By 2015, that rate had increased to 1.82 percent, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Pediatrics. Suicide rates have gone up across the board, across all age groups and demographics. But the biggest jumps were with adolescents between 12 and 14 years old and 15 to 17 years old. While suicide rates increased with both sexes, the increases were higher with girls, and rates were higher during the school year.
As a parent, it’s hard to fathom a child — someone whose life has barely even begun — choosing to kill themselves. But then you hear stories about teens battling depression or dealing with bullying at school, enduring substance abuse or sexual abuse or fighting some other type of adversity. Even then, it’s still hard to imagine the nightmare that the parents left behind must face.
It’s a horror that one Birmingham, Alabama, family is dealing with the after their 9-year-old daughter died by suicide last week. On Nov. 9, fourth-grader Madison “Maddie” Whittsett, who was described as “energetic, funny, and loved dance,” came home from school and hanged herself in her bedroom closet while her mother was on the phone.
Her mother, Eugenia Williams, and stepdad, Jimmie Williams, are now pointing to bullying at school, which they believe led to their daughter’s death. Maddie had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and she was sometimes bullied by her peers who called her “stupid” and “dumb,” her parents told al.com. She had also recently started a new ADHD medication, which lists suicidal thoughts as a possible side effect, the family said.
“The bullying plus the medicine, I think, gave her the boost to do that,” Jimmie Williams told al.com.
As I read about Maddie’s horrible death, I couldn’t help but think about my oldest daughter, age 9. She’s also in fourth grade, the same age as Maddie. My daughter also has ADHD and takes medicine for it. My daughter, who can often be found dancing in her room to music playing on her Amazon dot, is energetic. She’s funny, she loves to dance.
As I read about Maddie Whittsett, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities she shared with my daughter — and how they could have easily been friends.
In the days since Maddie died, her family has been talking about her death as a method to raise awareness about the issue of youth suicide. They hope that talking about it can prevent it from happening to someone else.
But the problem is, it’s hard to broach the subject. This week, I sat down with my daughter to talk about bullying at school. We haven’t gotten to suicide yet — I’m still researching how I want to talk about it with my kids. One thing that Maddie’s death made me realize is that I need to talk to my kids about suicide — and sooner, rather than later.
Here are some tips about how to talk to your kids about suicide, from the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide:
— Timing is everything. Pick a time when you have your child’s attention. A suicide that has received media attention can provide the perfect opportunity to bring up the topic.
— Think about what you want to say ahead of time.
— If this is a hard subject for you to talk about, admit it. Acknowledging discomfort gives your child permission to acknowledge his/her discomfort, too.
— Ask for your child’s response.
— Listen to what your child has to say.
— Don’t overreact or under-react. Overreaction will close off any future communication on the subject. Under-reacting, especially in relation to suicide, is often just a way to make ourselves feel better. Remember that suicide is an attempt to solve a problem that seems impossible to solve in any other way.
— Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.