By Joe Barkovich, Scribbler-at-large
WELLAND – While warning signs of suicide do not automatically mean it will be attempted, they should be responded to in “serious and thoughtful manner,” said Laura Hotham, a Niagara College psychology professor.
Hotham spoke April 21 in a public session focusing on suicide and youth. Her presentation was aimed at parents and family members, school staff, coaches and youth leaders.
Why talk about suicide? The need is great for this pressing social issue to be on the frontburner of social concern. Canadian suicide rates are the highest they have been in Canadian history and suicide is the second leading cause of death in Canadian youth, Hotham said. According to a news report, 22% per cent of Canadian teens considered suicide in a recent year. Other statistics indicate rates of suicide are highest for people in the 15 to 24 and 25 to 34 age demographics. Females attempt suicide more than males, and suicide does not discriminate by age, race, gender or income group.
There are specific warning signs that always need to be heeded, said Hotham, who has a masters degree in Counselling Psychology. These include: talking about death and dying, change in personality and change in behaviour, among others.
Any mention of dying, disappearing, or self-harm is never to be taken lightly, she cautioned.
Changes in one’s personality can be considered red flags as well. These include: sadness, becoming withdrawn, irritable and anxious, and indecisiveness and apathy.
“Do not dismiss a threat as a cry for attention,” she said.
Many are the factors that increase risk of suicide.
Mental illness (for example depression and anxiety), is one. Others include: drinking alcohol and doing drugs, family history of suicide, physical and sexual abuse, stressful events in life (for example divorce or loss of a family member), easy access to lethal means and one now being seen more often, the struggle with gender identification.
Hotham, who has “years of experience working with people in crisis and counselling youth and young adults”, took time in the presentation to try and dispel common myths about suicide.
Some of these myths are: suicidal people really want to die so there is no way to stop them; people who talk about suicide are doing it for attention; all individuals who are suicidal are depressed; talking about suicide will cause an individual to attempt suicide; and, improvement following a suicide crisis means the risk of suicide is over.
But building resilience and self-esteem can help decrease risk of suicide, she said.
This can be done by creating a safe and loving environment in the home; remembering and demonstrating that failure is part of life; constant reinforcement about love being unconditional; helping a child express his or her feelings; and teaching children to be critical of media, especially social media.
Good, positive self-esteem cannot be underestimated as a protective factor, she said. Seeing hope in the future, not fixating on day-to-day emotions and involvement in positive activities outside of regular school hours, such as volunteerism and sports are examples of others.
How to talk to youth thinking about suicide was discussed. For example, it is important to ask questions in order to get a better understanding about how a child is feeling. There is need to be patient and to use open ended and direct questions to encourage them to talk.
“Pay attention to their body language; even if they say they are fine, they may show their true thoughts and feelings through their gestures and facial expressions,” Hotham said.
“Be non-judgmental and compassionate… remember their perspective and validate their feelings…..identify the positives and remind them they have reason to live….”
Based on questions she was asked and conversations with attendees afterward, Hotham said the audience was a mix of people who work with youth in the community, and parents and grandparents.
One of the questions sought her opinion about why the number of suicides has increased in Canada over the past few decades. She shared a response in email correspondence with me.
“All the research I have read states different hypothesis’ but there is nothing that can definitively account for it,” she wrote. “For example, social media is believed to be a factor, not just how it allows cyberbullying, which can lead to suicide, but social media has been shown to play a role in depression and anxiety in young people and I’ve personally seen this with clients and students. It can be depressing for some, to look at what they perceive as others’ “perfect” lives, when they feel down about their own life. I have to remind these young people that no one has a perfect life, but people don’t (often) post their problems on Facebook, they only post their best pictures and greatest moments. It gives people a warped perception of reality.”
She also shared another perspective in her correspondence.
“I think the other problem is that the more people do it, the more people see it as a good option. Some people believe that we are just hearing more about it because we now have access to information, via the internet, about what happens around the world. I disagree with this theory because the actual statistics from Health Canada, which state causes of death, show that there has been an increase. This isn’t just the public’s perception due to access to information. “When I was in high school from 1989-1993, I didn’t even really know about suicide. No one I knew had ever suicided. It wasn’t until years later, that someone I went to high school with did. Kids can’t say that today. Most students I teach state that they know someone from high school that suicided, some know several. It has become a real problem, and that is why I really think more prevention and awareness needs to take place.
Hotham is the co-author of a textbook, LifeSmart (Developmental Psychology)
and a former Advanced Care Paramedic in Niagara region. She received an invitation to speak from the John Howard Society and this report is based on her Power Point presentation at Welland Public Library’s Seaway Mall branch that evening.