Recognizing and Responding to Depression and Suicidal Thinking: Tips for Parents and Teachers

Research studies indicate that depression is one of the most frequently occurring mental health challenges for today’s children. As an example, a recent Fairfax County Youth Survey found that 22% of surveyed 6th graders and almost one-third of the teens surveyed in grades 8-12 reported experiencing significant symptoms of depression within the previous 12 month period (an incidence rate notably above the national average). Equally worrisome was the finding that 4% of 8-12th grade Fairfax youth reported that they had attempted suicide, while 17% had seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months. Findings from numerous studies also underscore that depression often goes undiagnosed and untreated, and that depression is often linked to suicidal thoughts. Actual suicides among children, and particularly teens, have nearly doubled in the past decade and suicide has become the third leading cause of death among young people.

The more adults know about the signs of depression and the facts about suicide the better equipped we are to communicate to children that we care and that there is help and hope. Listed below are signs of depression and potential suicidal thinking as well as facts about suicide and what parents and school personnel can do to help.

Signs of depression and potential for suicidal thinking:
• Sad or angry mood, chronic irritability
• Lack of energy or motivation
• Loss of interest in usual activities
• Social withdrawal/isolation
• Changes in sleep patterns (e.g., difficulties getting to sleep, staying asleep, getting up)
• Feeling hopeless and helpless
• Feeling worthless or guilty (for no logical reason)
• Substance abuse
• Risk-taking behaviors (e.g., reckless driving, fighting)/self-injury
• Thoughts or talk of death, and suicide perceived as an “end to the pain”

Suicide facts:
• Suicide is preventable. Most suicidal people want to live; they are just unable to see alternatives to solving their problems.
• Suicide cuts across social and economic boundaries.
• Many people who are suicidal reach out for help, and most people who commit
suicide have talked about or given definite warning signs of their intentions.
Therefore, take signals from children seriously.
• Most suicidal people are suicidal for only limited periods of time. However, someone who has made an attempt is at increased risk for future attempts.
• Don’t minimize the distress that a child might feel. Given the (unavoidable) limited life experience of children, some children may think that some events, such as the breakup with a boyfriend, disbanding of a sports team, and/or trouble at school or with the law are “the end of the world.”
• Asking people if they are thinking about suicide does not give them the idea for
suicide. It is important to talk about suicide with a person who is suicidal because you will learn more about their “mindset” and intentions, and talking will relieve some of the tension that may be giving rise to their suicidal feelings.
• Be aware that depression combined with substance abuse is a potentially lethal
combination that must be addressed, as alcohol or drugs dramatically increase the
possibility that a person will act impulsively.

What school personnel can do:
• Recognize that children do not choose to be depressed. When children are depressed, they lack the resources to do their best work. Therefore, do not use punitive approaches to address difficulties as it may cause further low motivation.
• Develop a relationship with the child. Provide them individual attention, talk with the student, and be patient with them.
• Modify assignments or tasks. This does not excuse the student from completing work, but more time, lessening the length of assignments, and pairing the student with other students may help increase work production.
• Provide opportunities for success. Schedule pleasant activities and opportunities for successful leadership.
• Seek help from your school’s School Psychologist when appropriate.

What parents can do:
• Make it a priority to keep lines of communication open with your child. Consider
having weekly family meetings to discuss activities, school, friends, successes, and to provide a forum for problem solving.
• Know your child and your child’s friends.
• Actively involve yourself in school/community/daycare activities.
• Monitor and observe your child for symptoms and signs of depression.
• Learn about school/community resources.
• Ask your child directly about suicidal thoughts, drug involvement, alcohol use, and/or problems with bullies. Asking directly about these issues do not cause these issues to occur, but they can help head off potential problems in these areas.
• Consult with the School Psychologist at your child’s school if you have concerns.
Contact a Clinical Psychologist in your community if you need further assistance.

Resource: Seligman, Martin (1996). The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children from Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience. New York, NY: Harper Perennial

Douglas O. Lipp, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist