By Dan Salinas, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta
As the Chief Medical Officer of a pediatric healthcare system, I thought I’d heard it all. But after more than three decades in pediatric medicine, I recently left a meeting that has kept me up at night ever since.
There’s a silent epidemic happening in Georgia that’s claiming the lives of young men and women—some as little as 9 years old.
So far this year, 25 children in Georgia have intentionally taken their own lives. Think about that. Twenty-five kids making such a scary decision before they’ve had the chance to learn to drive, walk the stage at graduation or vote. In one case, a third grader used his family’s gun to take his life shortly after getting off of the school bus. A third grader.
Of the 25 victims, half died from gunshot wounds, and many others died from hanging or overdosing. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation estimates we’re on track to reach 60 by the end of this year.
2016 data is not all-inclusive because all death data from metro counties is not yet available.
I wish I had answers as to what is causing this. While middle and high schools have always been mine fields for self-esteem, social media has greatly amplified kids’ exposure to bullying and other behaviors that affect mental wellbeing. Kids are feeling lost and, within minutes of posting a tweet, Snapchat or Instagram, they receive tangible and very public feedback about whether or not they’re liked by peers.
I understand this is not easy to read. In fact, there’s a good chance you wish you could unread this and go back to thinking suicide doesn’t happen, at least not here, not in our own backyard. And especially not among kids.
But as someone who has seen families in shock and knows firsthand how this painful reality wears on the men and women who work tirelessly to save these kids, I beg you to keep reading. If we choose to ignore the statistics and the warning signs—we become part of the problem.
Any threat of suicide should be taken very seriously.
Watch for warning signs:
Making suicidal statements
Talking about, writing about or drawing images of death
Calling, texting or visiting friends or loved ones to say goodbye
Giving away belongings
Showing signs of depression, such as moodiness, hopelessness or withdrawal
Having aggressive or hostile behavior
Neglecting personal appearance
Having a previous suicide attempt
Take note of key risk factors:
Depression or other mental disorders
Drug or alcohol use problems
Recent break-up with boyfriend or girlfriend
Loss of a parent or close family member through death or divorce
Exposure to suicidal behavior in others, whether family, peers or celebrities
Stress caused by physical changes related to puberty, chronic illness and/or sexually transmitted infections
Uncertainty surrounding sexual orientation
Problems at school, such as falling grades, disruptive behavior or frequent absences
Legal or discipline problems
Understand how you can help:
If someone is at immediate risk of suicide, call 911.
If you have concerns, talk to your child’s or teen’s pediatrician.
If anyone, whether a child or an adult, exhibits signs of suicide, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225.
Ensure that any firearms in the house are in a secure, locked cabinet. If a member of your household is indicating suicidal thoughts, remove all firearms from the house.
Pay close attention to the content your kids are consuming, whether it’s on TV or social media.
Ask questions. Do not stay silent.
Nobody wants to talk about suicide. You don’t want to upset a parent or a child. You feel silly for causing concern.
But you can’t have a public discussion or drive change if nobody will talk about it!
Asking about suicide does not cause a person to become suicidal. This is a common myth.
Ask questions, have that uncomfortable conversation, and share this message with friends and family—before it’s too late.