This is Suicide Prevention Week; mother-lawyer-nurse says we can prevent it among children by building their resilience

By Kate Hendrickson

Community columnist, Lexington Herald-Leader

Another parent has lost a child — this time a fourth-grader — to suicide.

Appallingly, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for children in Kentucky. Mental-health issues, a growing sense of individual isolation and our children’s immersion in technology contribute to the increase in this tragic epidemic.

Identification and treatment of risk factors — depression and other mood disorders, suicide ideation, chronic disease or disability, and substance abuse — are the primary aspects of suicide prevention.

However, some experts believe that developing resilience may be a solution to this crisis. Resilience, the ability to maintain positive adjustment under challenging life circumstances, allows us to recover from adversity more quickly. Resilience research shifts the focus from suicide treatment to its prevention.

Prevention is more beneficial and substantially less costly than treatment. We vaccinate our children to protect them from childhood diseases, let us work to inoculate them against suicide. We cannot shield our children from life’s traumas, but we can help them build resilience and decrease the likelihood they will contemplate or carry out a suicide attempt.

A stable and committed relationship with a parent, caregiver or other parental figure is the single-most common factor that helps a child build resilience. As parents, we can help our kids develop a sense of control and belief in their ability to achieve goals; develop adaptive skills and the ability to self-regulate behavior; and explore the joy of faith and cultural traditions. By doing so, we increase their ability to deal with life’s challenges.

Resilience begins in infancy when we develop and maintain healthy bonds with our children. We are their security blankets, providing a physically and emotionally stable and safe environment. Our hugs, kisses and physical closeness help inoculate them against life stresses.

Throughout childhood, keeping the lines of communication open is vital. Listening, encouraging, providing humor and perspective during difficult situations help our children develop resilience. Setting reasonable expectations and limits, encouraging appropriate expression of emotions, teaching our children to take care of themselves by exercising, eating properly, having fun and getting enough rest are essential for emotionally healthy children.

In spite of all possible efforts, some children suffer the slings and arrows of life more deeply than others. For them, it is important to intervene early. We must watch for changes in attitudes and behaviors, take any talk of suicide seriously and obtain mental-health treatment for our child and ourselves.

If there is any talk or threats of suicide, it is important to remove access to all firearms and medications. Since our children spend many of their waking hours in an educational setting, schools are uniquely positioned to assist with resilience development and suicide prevention.

All Kentucky public middle and high schools must provide every student with suicide-prevention awareness information. Completion of suicide-prevention training, every other year, is required for school administrators, teachers and counselors. However, these minimal requirements are not sufficient.

Schools must go further by offering programs that assist our children with character development, conflict resolution, compassion, leadership development and bullying prevention. A program effective in preventing not only suicide but also substance use, bullying and violence is available from the Kentucky Department for Behavioral Health.

This peer-led program has been instituted in some Kentucky public school districts but it needs to be available in every district. Not just during September, Suicide Awareness Month, but throughout the year, we must all work to prevent suicide and save our children.

These are our kids; let us join together to be their village.

Kate Hendrickson of Maysville is a writer, lawyer, nurse and mother of four. This was first published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, for which she is a community columnist.