During the last decade, the number of emergency room and hospital visits linked to suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts among children nearly doubled, according to a study in Pediatrics. This was especially true among youth 15 to 17 years of age. Experts say that bullying, trauma, and abuse are often underlying factors.
Fortunately, with the right type of support from health care providers and others, children and their parents can find the resources they need to heal and prevent mental health crises in the future. If you are a parent whose child has attempted suicide, hope and help are available—and creating a plan to move forward is an important place to start.
Preparing for discharge
Children who have attempted suicide are typically treated within some type of health care facility during the period of acute crisis. The days, weeks, and months after this time will be different for every family—which is why the plan of care for each child must be individualized.
When your child is discharged from the health care facility, you will receive a plan for follow-up care, which often includes outpatient counseling. If you have any concerns or feel that something is unclear, it is important to ask the medical team questions and clarify the details of the plan.
Krystle Herbert, LMFT, PsyD, a psychology adjunct faculty member for the online Master of Psychology program from Pepperdine University, says this is an important time for parents to speak up on their child’s behalf. “Advocate for the needs of your child, especially if they do not appear ready to reenter the home and back into their prior routine,” Dr. Herbert said.
Once your child has returned home, Dr. Herbert says that the level of care they receive should be appropriate to the symptoms they are experiencing. Different options may be recommended, including traditional outpatient therapy with an individual therapist or a more structured therapeutic environment. This type of structured care may occur within a residential facility, as a partial hospitalization, or through intensive outpatient care.
Within therapeutic environments such as these, a multidisciplinary team of medical and mental health professionals work together to create an individualized plan that may include
- group therapy,
- individual therapy,
- medication management,
- counseling about nutrition, and
- other interventions that address a child’s individual needs.
A child may have once-weekly sessions or go several times a week. Typically, they sleep at home but spend most of the day at the facility participating in counseling and other therapeutic activities such as
- mindfulness exercises,
- journaling, and
- other strategies that support mental health.
If a family doesn’t have the resources to access this level of care, they may find additional options for support at community crisis centers, churches, and other religious organizations. Pediatricians and pediatric hospitals may be able to connect a child and family with telepsychiatry providers and other telehealth options that can make mental health counseling more accessible.
Developing a WRAP
One of the most important post-discharge needs for a child who has attempted suicide is to have a safety plan in place. Also referred to as a Wellness Recovery Action Plan, a WRAP is a go-to resource that a child can use when they feel stressed, need additional support, or experience a crisis. A WRAP can include the following:
- A list of your child’s “triggers.”
- Early warning signs that might suggest your child is feeling sad or stressed before those emotions become overwhelming.
- A roster of trustworthy, non-judgmental family members and friends to be called upon during periods of stress or crisis.
- Relaxation exercises and stress-reduction techniques.
- Affirming words and activities to remind your child of their positive qualities.
- Reminders and tips to eat healthfully, exercise, and sleep.
- A list of people and organizations not to call to avoid further stressing out your child.
- Who to call (911, local crisis center, suicide prevention hotline, your child’s therapist or pediatrician) and where to take your child for medical care in a crisis.
If you are a parent of a child who has experienced suicidal thoughts or actions, one of the most important things to remember is that you are not alone. Help is available for both your child and you—these resources may provide additional assistance:
- A Voice at the Table
- NAMI Family-to-Family educational program
- NAMI Family Support Group
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ+ teens and young adults)
Alexis Anderson is a Sr. Digital PR Coordinator at 2U, Inc, supporting outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and occupational therapy programs. Find her on Twitter @HeyLexHey.
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