7 Steps To Assessing Suicide Risk & Coronavirus Stress In Children

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7 Steps To Assessing Suicide Risk And Coronavirus Stress In Children

With a quarantine in place because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, pressures mount on everyone in the household.

Unfortunately, our children are not exempt from coronavirus stress.

It is to be expected that parents are concerned for their children’s mental health. Sometimes, their risk of suicide also increases during this time.

After all, we are all feeling the pressure, stress, and grief that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust upon us.

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We are all doing our best to manage things. But, for children, this exceptionally uncomfortable situation is sometimes harder to understand and accept.

Most of us can weather the storms of pressure and stress that COVID-19 is causing, but for children, it is sometimes harder — especially because they can see the toll that the situation is taking on their parents.

To escape, many children are spending even more time online — in class, on social media, and just surfing.

Even in the best of times, the online world is rife with the social pressures of cyberbullying. It is evident that being a kid is harder than it ever has been.

Childhood suicide is real.

Outside of the current situation, it is on the rise.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of premature death for persons aged 10 to 24.

Figuring out how to support and protect your child from suicide risk factors while not making things worse is a common fear many parents have.

Fearing for the safety of your suffering child can leave you feeling motivated to act, but unsure about what is best.

Here are 7 steps to assess the risk factors for suicide in your child in the midst of stress due to the coronavirus.

1. Beware of loss or perceived loss.

The most salient risk factor for suicide in all ages appears to be the experiencing of a significant loss — a breakup, a rejection, school problems, or a devastating grade.

And with the pandemic, a way of life has been lost — at least for a bit. And that is a very significant loss to children and even adults.

Whenever your child has a loss, it is critical to pay close attention to their behavior and mood.

For children and teens, it is very important to view these losses through the eyes of your child, not only through your eyes.

In other words, what feels like a catastrophic loss to a child may not feel like a loss to a parent. What’s critical is to assess how important the loss is to your child.

2. Know what the other risk factors of significance are.

Other risk factors that have been shown to increase the risk for suicide are:

  • Depression or bipolar disorder
  • History of suicidal behavior
  • Family history of suicidal behavior or losing a friend to suicide
  • Impulsivity and substance abuse substantially limit a person’s self-control
  • Withdrawal
  • Moodiness or odd behavior

If your child has been exposed to or involved in any of these situations, their risk is higher and seeking mental-health help is warranted.

Take steps to limit a child’s access to methods of self-harm. Keep all medicines and sharp objects out of reach and put away. Restrict any kind of access to weapons.

3. Listen, even if it’s painful.

Listen to your child and hear their cries for help.

Are they telling you that they feel overwhelmed, unable to cope, and devastated? Have your child’s friends alerted you they are worried about your child?

Poor parent-child communication has been shown to increase a teen’s risk of suicide. So, now is the time to improve your communication with your child and present a strong, supportive front.

Most people reach out for help when they feel suicidal.

The most important thing you can do is listen to your child and take their concerns very seriously.

Try to see things through their eyes, offer to be with them, arrange for professional help, tell them how much you love them and how you will help them get through this — and that it absolutely will get better.

Instilling a sense of hope is key to intervention. Helping your child see hope when they feel hopeless is one of the most powerful things you can offer, in addition to assuring them you will keep them safe.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask your child about suicidal thoughts.

Don’t be afraid to ask your child whether they have thought about giving up or ending their life.

Many people avoid this because they think asking such questions will put thoughts in the head of a depressed person and could make them suicidal.

In fact, asking about suicidal thoughts does the opposite. It helps a person who is suicidal feel understood. It helps a depressed person see that they could be feeling a lot worse.

Having thoughts of dying or wishing life would just end so the pain would stop does not necessarily mean a person is at risk of taking action to end their life.

While your child may not need to be hospitalized to keep themselves safe, such thoughts are indeed a cry for help and a sign that your child needs professional help — urgently!

Even if your child bounces back to themselves and denies thinking of death, arranging for them to see a professional is important for their health. This also sends the powerful message that you heard them and take their feelings and safety seriously.

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5. Establish safety.

Fortunately, one of the benefits of sheltering in place is that you can stay close to your child.

You can help limit the feelings of isolation and helplessness, which is common to people who are feeling suicidal. It will also allow you to observe your child more attentively and regularly.

It is also important to ask your child to agree to a safety plan by having them promise to keep themselves safe if they feel like harming themselves.

It can be helpful to have your child, in your presence, write down the following statement:

"If I start to feel like harming myself, I agree to keep myself safe and avoid such behaviors. I also agree to reach out to (list one to three people) for help. If none of them are available and I cannot keep myself safe, I agree to call (National Suicide Hotline). Signed, (Your Child)."

A safety plan template can offer a detailed format to collect a more defined plan of action. Make sure to share your safety plan with the professional who is helping you and your child.

6. Find out if your child has a suicide plan.

If you are scared your child may not be safe, it will help to assess their risk for action. Always err on the side of safety.

Any action you take to keep your child safe sends the powerful message that they are loved and valuable — often the thing they long to feel.

If your child admits to having suicidal thoughts, ask how they would do it. Listen to how practical and thought-out their plan is. The more realistic and lethal the plan, the higher the risk.

For instance, if your child says they really don’t know how they would do it, they just wish it would happen so they would be out of pain, they are telling you they don’t really have a plan.

On the other hand, if your child tells you they have looked up on the internet the most painless way to do it and has secured the supplies to do so, they are telling you clearly they have a plan.

Having any sort of realistic plan is a dangerous sign and warrants immediate action.

A parent should reach out to professionals immediately to assess how to keep them safe. When in doubt, go directly to the ER.

7. Take action.

If you believe your child is in danger, and they will not agree to go to the hospital, take bolder action to ensure their safety. Do not hesitate to call 911.

Every state has a protocol for emergency intervention to keep a person safe. Calling 911 is the first step in every jurisdiction.

The police will help your family get your child the help they need at a hospital where they will be safe and can get the medical attention they need.

If your child is in trouble, you will never regret overreacting — the only real risk is under-reacting.

Suicidal thoughts or behavior always happen in the context of acute or chronic mental distress or illness.

The realities of the pandemic have nearly all of us in mental and emotional distress, especially our children who do not necessarily have the capability of fully understanding the situation.

Making the effort to lovingly assess your child’s adjustment to our new, temporary, reality is one of the most important things you can do to ensure their emotional and mental health. The steps above are a great place to start.

If you need additional online resources, here are some to investigate:

RELATED: 11 Healthy & Educational Ways To Keep Kids Busy While Cooped Up At Home In Coronavirus Quarantine

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Alicia Clark, PsyD is a psychologist and author in Washington, D.C., specializing in anxiety for more than 25 years. Learn more about her book, "Hack Your Anxiety" and get resources to help you manage the fear and anxiety going around the world today.