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The Perspective
The Perspective

September 9, 2016

Speak up we’re listening: preventing youth suicide takes a team

Joanne Bignell is a Nurse Practitioner with the Urgent Care Psychiatry Program at SickKids and is a member of the SickKids Centre for Brain & Mental Health.

Today, suicide is the second leading cause of death among Canadian children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 years, making youth suicide prevention a pressing topic of conversation over the past few years.  

It is only with ongoing discussions about youth suicide that we will be able to increase awareness, decrease the stigma and hopefully one day lead to the reduction of youth suicide cases in Canada.

Over the past 20 years at SickKids, I have seen numerous children and adolescents come to the Emergency Department with thoughts and/or attempts of suicide. In each case, we sit down with the patient and their family to discuss potential reasons for these feelings/actions and come up with a plan to manage these feelings moving forward.  

Refusing to talk about difficult emotions or acknowledge suicidal thoughts only perpetuates the stigma and puts people at a higher risk of doing something dangerous. It is important that the child or teen knows they are not the only person who has ever felt this way and that there are strategies that can help them manage their thoughts and emotions and help to address their specific challenges. It is also important that youth are informed that there are people who want to listen and have the ability to help them understand what they are going through, and how to cope.   

Mental health professionals at SickKids talk to youth about acknowledging and expressing distressing feelings. The SickKids experts can help ensure a safe living environment and provide coping strategies that will empower the youth and help them keep themselves safe.  

Children and teens often express that they feel out of control and don’t know what to do, so it is my job to help them gain back control, which includes knowing who to call or what to do if they are feeling unsafe. It has been my experience that once we have a solid safety plan in place, both the youth and their parents feel more confident in their abilities to manage situations that may arise.

Luckily, most children and adolescents have a parent or guardian involved in their life and we always include them in the safety planning. Parents and guardians can support the youth through active listening, coping strategies and ongoing safety check-ins. Increasing parent/guardian awareness and opening up the lines of communication is imperative to keeping our children and teens safe.  

In addition to the increasing focus on communication and awareness about youth suicide in our clinical environment at SickKids, the SickKids Centre for Brain & Mental Health’s Youth Suicide Prevention Working Group has developed the Speak Up…We’re Listening campaign, to provide accessible and reliable information on the topic of youth suicide prevention to patients, families, caregivers and health-care professionals. The group has created online resources, community engagement events and an annual endowed lectureship to educate and advocate for youth suicide prevention.

We need to approach the issue of youth suicide as a team – a team that works to raise awareness, decrease the stigma, decrease the incidence and empower our youth.