September 7, 2022

Expert says awareness, education and mental health advocacy are key to suicide prevention

A new national suicide and crisis lifeline (988) was established in July

Madison, Wis. – In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week, a UW Health Kids expert is sharing a hopeful message that help is available.

Suicide rates are rising, and it is the third leading cause of death for young people, but there is hope, according to Dr. Laura Houser, pediatrician, UW Health Kids, and director of advocacy for the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, where she teaches and leads other doctors about promoting children’s health and safety.

“This week is a good opportunity to raise awareness, educate and advocate for mental health resources,” she said, "because suicide is a serious public health concern that can devastate families and communities.”

Those who are ages 10 to 24 account for 14 percent of all suicides, and the rate of suicides in that group increased by nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (pdf).

Teen suicide rates are higher among males than females and suicide attempts are nearly four times higher among high school students who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual compared with students who identified as heterosexual, according to America’s Health Rankings and the CDC (pdf).

Current data precedes the COVID-19 pandemic, but experts believe rates will increase when this data is included, according to Houser.

Amid reports of the pandemic’s negative impact on mental health for all, especially young people, a new resource became available. A new national 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline was established in July and should be an important mental health resource because anyone, anywhere in the U.S., can call the number, or chat or text #988 to get linked to immediate crisis care, Houser said.

“The goal of 988 is to provide an effective alternative to 911 and a standard law enforcement response,” she said. “The goal is to have a responder who is a trained crisis counselor who can help with suicide, mental health and substance use-related crises.”

988 is also a resource for parents who are concerned about a child and need resources. Callers will be connected to a local counselor in their own state, she said.

According to Houser, if parents or caregivers need to access pediatric mental health care, they should talk to their child’s primary care doctor. Schools or churches can also be a place for support and trusted resources, she said.

“If there is a mental health emergency and a child needs immediate help, parents should get their child to the emergency department as soon as possible,” she said.

Houser tells families not to be afraid to talk about suicide.

“Asking about suicide does not cause someone to suddenly consider it,” she said.

UW Health Kids and the American Association of Suicidology recommend parents watch for the following in children to help identify key warning signs for suicide:

  • Ideation: Talking about or threatening to harm or kill oneself, looking for ways to kill oneself and talking or writing about death, dying or suicide

  • Increased substance use

  • Purposelessness

  • Anxiety: Worry, fear, agitation or changes in sleep patterns

  • Feeling trapped, like there is no way out of a bad situation

  • Hopelessness

  • Withdrawal from friends, family and society

  • Anger

  • Recklessness

  • Mood changes

If you notice any of these signs, call your child’s doctor or seek help right away if needed, according to Houser.

“The health and safety of our children should be a top priority,” Houser said. “Though there are many challenges young people face when it comes to mental health, it is hopeful to see more communication about it than ever, and together with new and expanding resources, we can work to prevent suicide.”