Addressing mental health preventing suicide

Dr. Nita Kumar addresses a packed room during Anoka-Hennepin’s Parent Engage 360 event March 2 at the Anoka-Hennepin Educational Services Center in Anoka. (Photo by Connor Cummiskey)

Recent student deaths have put mental health issues in the spotlight of local communities and schools.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District’s March 2 Parent Engage 360 event focusing on student mental health overflowed with attendees who wanted to learn about the topic.

Mental health and suicide prevention have been in the news and on parents’ minds after multiple students attending Blaine High School died by suicide this school year, according to Jim Skelly, the district’s communications director.

A total of 11 Anoka-Hennepin School District students have died this school year, according to Skelly. He would not confirm the nature or cause of their deaths, citing privacy laws and parent requests.

At least five individuals age 18 or younger have died by suicide in Anoka County since Sept. 1, 2019, according to data from the Anoka County Medical Examiner’s Office. A total of six youth died by suicide during the 2019 calendar year, and at least three have died by suicide thus far in 2020, based on completed cases provided by the Medical Examiner’s Office.

Executive Director Sue Abderholden, of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota, or NAMI, spoke during the March 2 event at the Anoka-Hennepin Educational Services Center in Anoka. She broadly defined being mentally healthy as being able to cope with everyday obstacles.

“You don’t just flip out because there’s a traffic jam on Highway 10,” Abderholden said.

Mental illnesses have no specific cause, but some factors have been identified. Genes play a role, and so do lifestyle factors such as stress and trauma, Abderholden said.

Dr. Nita Kumar, Anoka-Hennepin’s mental health consultant, provided a list of assets that can improve the resilience of a student’s mental health.

Some external assets for mental health include students having at least three adults aside from parents involved in their life, parent involvement in school, serving others, clear boundaries at home and in school and youth activities.

Internal values include positive values, social competency and positive identity.

“Students who have a commitment and are interested and motivated and doing well in school are viewed as protected from some mental health risks,” Kumar said.

Building those assets takes time. More immediate strategies for feeling better include connecting with people, such as a support group or crisis line or just talking with someone, according to Kumar. Other strategies are physical activity like walking, running or otherwise spending time in nature, managing stress through mindfulness strategies such as breathing or guided imagery as well as basic self-care like making sure a student is sleeping enough, staying hydrated and eating healthy food.

Journaling is a good option for students to identify what activities help them feel better and what can make them feel worse.

“When students track their experiences and rate their mood after these experiences they can start to see some trends,” Kumar said.

Warning signs

A parent keeping an eye on a teenager should look for warning signs such as changes in sleep, putting themselves down, lack of interest in things they liked, changes in eating, irritability, feelings of hopelessness, being easily distracted and isolation from friends.

“Part of it is about the length of time and the intensity,” Abderholden said. “Every kid is going to do this, but they’re not going to do this for a month straight.”

A preoccupation with death, threats of self-harm or suicide, substance abuse and statements of hopelessness or despair are also warning signs, Abderholden said.

How to help a teen

If parent find themselves attempting to deescalate a situation, Abderholden’s first piece of advice was don’t overreact and start yelling.

“You’ve got to be calm, you’re the adult in the room,” Abderholden said. “You’ve got to be calm and try to quiet things down.”

A parent should actively listen to their child, and not be quick to offer solutions. Instead, ask how you can help. Offer options for a student to choose so they can feel greater control over their lives.

“You might remember when you had toddlers, you would fight with them about what to (wear) in the morning, so you’d put out three outfits so that they could choose,” Abderholden said.

She also suggested to avoid touching teenagers if they are upset, declaring your actions beforehand and giving a child space. Moving slowly can also help prevent upsetting a teenager in crisis.

If a parent is worried about a teenager, Abderholden suggested taking the teen for a walk or riding along in a car to talk.

“Having had two teenagers, the very best way to talk to a teenager is not to look at them,” Abderholden said.

During Abderholden’s presentation, a man shouted out asking what about talking about a child’s future and what they may miss.

“One of the things that we know when trying to prevent suicide is that when someone is feeling that despair or that impulsivity, you don’t actually have time to talk about the future — you have to talk about the present,” Abderholden said.

Another concern with youth deaths by suicide is the contagion factor, where one death may contribute to the death of another, Abderholden said.

When talking about death by suicide, it’s important to avoid sharing details about the means, location or other details that encourage imitation.

Contagion is particularly risky among youth, and it’s important to avoid romanticizing or glamorizing the death. Avoid spontaneous memorials and focus on a student’s life rather than how they died, Abderholden said.

Additional resources

In the event of a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. A crisis text line is available by texting “MN” to 741741.

Another resource is mobile crisis teams. Call **274747 from a cell phone or 612-596-1223 from a landline in Anoka County. A directory of phone numbers for adult mental health crisis response teams can be found here at tinyurl.com/unpxtg3.

Parents can find more information on mental health services provided by the district and initiate treatment at ahschools.us/mentalhealth.

Other resources include: the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, save.org and the Trevor Project.

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