Bay Area experts share advice on talking to children and teens about mental health, suicide

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Even though we're closing in on a return to school the isolation is hitting children especially hard. We've learned that in the past two weeks, two different middle school students in Marin County died by suicide.

While researchers have yet to link these to the pandemic, it is clear that parents and caregivers are grappling with ways to help their kids through these difficult times.

ABC7 News reached out to doctors helping families daily with mental health issues. We asked them to share their best advice on how to have a conversation about this challenging topic.

Dr. Jei, Africa for Marin County Health and Human Services:
Honesty is really important. You know, we think that our children don't know about it, but they actually do. So having age-appropriate conversations, encouraging open expression of feelings. I think people think denying it and pretending that it doesn't happen is really not very helpful. We just need to be upfront and say, "let's talk about what happened, it's okay to share your emotions."

Dr. Lauren Haack for UCSF:
I think the number one thing that I try to convey is being open to hearing what your teens are going through, even if that's really hard to hear.

TAKE ACTION: Get help with mental health issues

What are the right words to use, if any, when you're dealing with such tough subjects such as depression, anxiety, suicide?

Dr. Jei, Africa for Marin County Health and Human Services:
I think there's a spectrum of age-appropriate terms. So, I wouldn't use depression if it's probably somebody who's young. I would say: "How are you feeling? Are you feeling sad? Do you feel like crying sometimes, you want to feel like you're alone?" Obviously, if it's maybe a teenager, I think being more direct about thinking about suicidal thoughts, because they have the language already. And if people are not ready, when they say "I don't want to talk about it," don't close the door. Maybe say, if you just don't want to talk about it, then it's okay. But, I care about you. And I really want you to be open and feel like you can talk to me about these issues.

Dr. Lauren Haack for UCSF:
It can be our knee-jerk reaction to respond with "Oh, don't say that, don't be sad." And we actually want to do the opposite. We want to send the message that I'm really happy that you're talking about this with me, and you're not alone in this.

What are the signs that parents and caregivers should be looking for in their children?

Dr. Jei, Africa for Marin County Health and Human Services:
Notice a change in behavior. So, if your child is pretty vocal, you know, talks a lot, and then you start noticing that they start becoming more silent.

Dr. Lauren Haack for UCSF:
Three signs that you might want to reach out for extra help for your teen :
  • If they stop interacting with friends and family and are really withdrawing for days on end.

  • If they're really withdrawing from school and not engaging in their schoolwork or their zoom classrooms.

  • If they're saying that they're really having distress, or you're seeing that their mood or irritability is much different than you typically see for them for several days, most days of the week.

TAKE ACTION: Suicide Prevention: Local resources for those in crisis

What do you do if you feel that initial pushback from your child?

Dr. Lauren Haack for UCSF
I think just leaving the door open and letting them know it's okay, if you don't want to talk to me about this right now, I want you to know, you can come to me at any time.

The hardest thing for parents to do is to begin the conversation. So, how do you start?

Dr. Lauren Haack for UCSF
One nice way that parents can begin the conversation is by modeling how they're feeling. And it's okay as a parent to say, I feel really stressed today.

Dr. Jei, Africa for Marin County Health and Human Services
It's really important that we as adult caregivers, really remain open, and also knowledgeable about resources. Because when that door is open, and your child is willing to talk, it would be good to be armed with information, right? Because the worst thing you can say is, "oh, I don't have that."

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is free and confidential.
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