Suicide is not an easy topic for parents to discuss with teens, but since it is the third-leading cause of death among U.S. adolescents, it is vital to keep communication open and give teenagers permission to raise the subject if they have concerns about a classmate, a friend or themselves.

This was one of the key messages behind "Not My Kid: A Community Conversation on Youth Suicide," recently held at Oak-Land Junior High in Lake Elmo, sponsored by the Suicide Prevention Collaborative (SPC) in Washington County.

The forum for parents, teachers and teens featured a presentation by Maureen Underwood, clinical director for the New Jersey-based Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide. The group was founded by Scott Fritz and Don Quigley, each of whom lost a teenager to suicide.

"When your child tells you they are worried about someone else, or worried about their own life, the three most important words to say are 'Tell me more,'" said Underwood. "Don't brush it off or tell them they will feel better soon. It is essential to listen."

Being open to conversation is especially critical if a teen suicide has just occurred in their school or within their community.

"I always tell teens that it might be hard for their parents to listen to them talk about the subject of suicide. They may be worried about the teen or about their friends, but at the same time, they really need to know what their child is feeling," she said.

Start talking early

Starting those discussions even before kids reach their teenage years may have an impact on an unsettling trend. Statistics from the Center for Disease Control reveal that the rate of suicide attempts among 10- to 14-year-olds, primarily girls, has risen more than 300 percent in the past five years. (While suicide among middle schoolers is infrequent, this age group can experience depression.)

"Those of us in the field are really focusing on 'upstream' suicide prevention and teaching younger kids about coping skills and problem-solving," she said. "The hope is that once they get to high school, these are more automatic behaviors."

The SPC is a volunteer organization made up of mental health workers, physicians and others who work with young people in Washington County. The collaborative was launched in 2010 in response to six teen suicides within several months in the county.

"This was a group of professionals that stepped up and said we need to do something about this," said Sarah Fuerst, a licensed psychologist and core leadership team member.

Several teen volunteers are also part of SPC and according to Stillwater High School junior Megan Huntley, 16, the teens' goal is to help raise awareness among their peers about mental health issues and suicide.

"People are afraid to talk about suicide, but if we are out there talking about it, the word won't be taboo anymore," she said.

Warning signs to note

Using the acronym FACTS, Underwood discussed several warning signs that parents should take seriously if observed in their teen: feelings of anger; action (risky behaviors, increased alcohol or drug use); changes in moods, attitudes, behaviors; threats (verbal statements, texts or other communication about suicide) and situations (triggers where the teen's coping skills are seriously challenged).

The most important factor that can help protect teens from suicide is contact with one caring adult. Underwood said the individual does not necessarily have to be the child's parent and many times it is a teacher.

"Parents, help your child identify trusted adults in their lives. Teach them that it is OK to ask for help if they need it," she said. "And be a good listener as often as you can."

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.

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