Making a safe space: Giving teens skills to combat anxiety, suicide

April 2019 Posted in School, Your Health

By Melissa Wagoner

Suicide is an often dreaded – and therefore avoided – conversation, but it is also one that is important for parents to have with their children, according to Psychiatrist Audry Van Houweling, who said there has been a sharp rise in suicide and suicide ideation among youth in recent years.

“It’s risen 40 percent,” she noted sadly. “And just from the kids that I see in my office it’s pretty significant.”

Van Houweling, owner of She Soars Psychiatry in Silverton, said one of the many myths that cling to the subject of suicide is that it doesn’t happen – or that it happens less – in small, close-knit communities like Silverton.

“Small towns, being intimately connected, is a strength – but it can also be a weakness,” she said. “I think that it can create this pressure to sort of put on a façade and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for authenticity. You see one side of this person because they have a reputation to uphold but where’s the room to put their issues on the table?”

Exacerbating the pressure is the rise in social media use, which Van Houweling said is “a constant barrage of pulling yourself into a place of comparison.” She also noted that the sharp rise of young suicide victims coincides with the advent of smart phones and social media platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat.

Although those statistics are looking at youth across the nation, Silverton High School Counselor Stacey White noted that she has seen the number of children negatively affected by social media on the rise within the Silver Falls School District as well.

“We have seen an increase in the number of risk assessments that we are doing at the high school, but that could also indicate that students are starting to reach out for help at higher rates,” she said. “Overall, we have seen [more] students affected by anxiety and depression than in years past. The impact of constant exposure to feedback from peers through social media and texting is something we have observed to be a challenge that our youth are facing today and something that wasn’t as prevalent just 10 years ago. It can be emotionally and physically exhausting for kids to face the pressures they are exposed to through technology, in addition to the typical pressures that teens face.”

Although some stress is common in adolescence, it is the method used for dealing with that stress that makes the difference, according to Jennifer Hannan, the Director of Teaching and Learning for the Silver Falls School District.

“It’s estimated that mental illness or drug abuse are present in 90 to 95 percent of suicides and age may also be considered a risk factor as suicide rates are highest for young people,” she explained. “I would attribute that to kids facing the same kinds of challenges and feelings that adults face, but with fewer skills to manage it. It is really about how effectively a child is able to process and manage situations or emotions that feel overwhelming, hopeless, permanent, or out of their control and often mental health issues and drug use impact their ability to do that effectively.”

Because educating students about effective coping skills has such import, Hannan and the Silver Falls School District as a whole have been actively implementing a new curriculum based on teaching social and emotional skills from kindergarten up.

“The Social Emotional Learning Skills are high stakes in suicide or suicidal ideation,” Hannan said. “A child’s skills in self-awareness, social-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making impact their resiliency, their reasoning, and their ability to problem solve appropriate solutions to overwhelming feelings and circumstances. We build resiliency in children by developing the Social Emotional Learning Skills. We cannot protect them from everything, but we can help them develop the skills to manage the hard things when they do come.”

The district is also working to combat the rise in at-risk students by training 50 additional staff members in mental health support. It has begun offering parent education opportunities which discuss the impact of social media, cell phones and video games.

“Parents are our best and first line of defense to see behaviors, changes, and stressors in our kids,” Hannan said.

Van Houweling also sees parents in this role, but she goes a step further by encouraging extended families and community members to talk openly with kids about suicide.

“There’s so much room to be talking about this outside of the mental health office,” she said. “In Oregon suicide is the number one killer of people ages 10 to 24. One in six kids have had serious suicidal thoughts. We should probably be talking about this.”

But talking about suicide can be difficult, according to White who said, “I think it is common for people to shy away from bringing up suicide out of fear that it might put thoughts or ideas into their child’s head that weren’t already there. It can be scary to face the topic, but often times, I find that once the question is asked, kids find relief in knowing it is safe to talk about that it is something they don’t have to face alone.”

And that is where community – and specifically the connectedness of small towns – comes into play, according to Van Houweling. She hopes to create connections between local health, wellness and support programs, and discuss the ways the community can help lessen emotional burdens and minimize stigma for those suffering.

“One of Silverton’s greatest strengths is the community connections and compassion its residents have towards one another,” she said. “Demonstrating compassion and openness towards those struggling with sadness, anxiety, loss, and grief, and other emotional hardships can be an incredibly healing gesture to so many.”

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