I admit that as a counselor I have been more focused on suicidal teens. Now, I wonder how many counselors are in my boat? Recently, I have been working with a parent of a teenager who is suicidal. This has opened my eyes to an entire population I realized I had never considered. I have known parents who have teens who are suicidal and somehow, I never transferred this population to my clinical brain. Maybe that is because I have tried very hard to maintain a firm boundary between counseling family and friends and counseling clients. In doing this though, I realized that I had completely ignored a population that really needs aid. Now, I am extremely grateful to this parent for opening my eyes.
This has, of course, led to the question: How many other populations have I come in contact with who really need support and have not received it? I made the decision to be vigilant for these populations. I also wondered, how many counselors have been in this position and how often? The understanding that counseling can be a beneficial process for any and everyone has always been there. But the more experience I gain, the more I realize that there are so many underserved populations. In keeping with the last posts, I will definitely be looking to work more with underserved populations.
A review of articles on the Counseling Today’s website brings up a few articles on suicide regarding different populations. However, I did not see any articles focused on the parents. A review of the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) website also offers articles focused on the suicidal victims. A Google search brings up more articles and resources than the 3 main mental health associations. Some of these articles are written by professional and personal bloggers and some by professional sources, for example, The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (SPTS). An important note regarding these resources is that much of the information that comes up on this Google search is focused on how parents should take care of their teens, signs they need to recognize, and suggested programs for their teens. One article even talked about what to do after a suicide. Yet, in all of these resources, there was little information focused on how parents deal with being in constant crises mode. Working with this parent has opened my eyes to the fact that they are almost permanently in fight or flight mode; they live in perpetual fear. For those teenagers who overcome their suicidal thoughts or self-harm, the worry is forever there that they will regress back to those thoughts and behaviors. Therefore, the parents will never fully experience calm again. These problems do not just apply to teenagers. Children are at risk for suicide and self-harm as are adults.
Risks for Caregivers/Parents
Caregivers and family members of suicide are themselves at risk for mental health problems. Parents of suicidal teens are most definitely at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This possible diagnosis does not include the stress that suicide plays on the family system, familial relationships, and marriages and/or committed relationships, and single parent families. Not only are the parents struggling with their children’s suicide, siblings go through their own struggles because most often, all the attention is now focused on preventing the suicide or self-harm, the other siblings can often become and/or feel isolated or neglected. There can be severe damage to the family system as they struggle under the pressure to cope with the suicide and the aftermath. For suicidal attempts or suicidal thoughts that do not turn into suicide, there is still significant damage that occurs within the family as the family system lives in perpetual fear of the suicide or the next suicide attempt. How does the family cope with living in extended fight or flight responses? If the suicide does occur, the family and caregivers are left struggling with their feelings regarding the event and the way their lives have been lived while trying to cope with the suicidal thoughts/attempts. There are feelings of guilt, shame, relief, freedom, fear, condemnation, and grief, and a whole other host of emotions.
What Can We Do?
When we do work with clients who are suicidal or are self-harming, although the parents may not be our clients, we can at minimum, check in with them and see how they are doing. Encourage them to take part in their own self-care. Encourage these parents to seek out their own services. We can validate the stress it puts on them and the entire family systems. Yes, we maybe going out of our way to do this but I believe this is the right thing to do and most times, the right thing to do is not easy! We do not have to counsel them, but we can surely encourage them to seek help and validate that what they are experiencing is difficult and can most certainly be overwhelming. I always remind my clients that we cannot care for others if we do not care for ourselves. We are always encouraged to give to others but never take for ourselves, this is a false lesson we have been socialized to believe. If we drain ourselves serving others and never take the time to replenish ourselves, how can we continue to serve others? It is the same principle for these parents. How can they continue to help their children through these difficult times without acknowledging the fear and stress they live under? How can they continue to care for their children without taking time to replenish themselves? Feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and failure are sure to loom over them all the time, and especially if they have teenagers/individuals who are adamant about suicide or even difficult to be around because of their attitudes. Then the stress is magnified because the suicidal individuals may not want help and may not be considerate of their caregivers’ feelings. So, these caregivers are left feeling isolated, terrified, overwhelmed, and unwanted.
It is disconcerting that there seems to be such limited research or articles written on helping parents deal with suicidal children and teens. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) lists suicide as the 10th leading cause of death in the US with approximately 44,193 Americans dying by suicide per year. Adolescent suicide accounts for 12.5 % in 2015. Adults between 45 and 64 years old account for the highest rates at 19.6% in 2015. I was not able to locate any research on parents of suicidal children/teenagers and their rate of suicide. Given the stressors that parents of suicidal children and teens live with, they would be at risk for the development of their own mental health issues. I found one local option for a support group for parents of suicidal children/teens.
Clearly more clinical research needs to be done on this population. In addition with statistics such as these, parents of suicidal victims are not the only caregivers not receiving care for this trauma. Victims of suicide leave behind a family system that has been destroyed by the stigma attached to suicide, the individual feelings the family members carry, in additional to the change in the family systems that the loss creates. For some clients where the family has been struggling with the suicidal ideations for periods of time, there may be feelings that surface, including guilt for feeling relieved for not having to live under that pressure anymore. PBS reported that the US suicidal rates is at its highest point since 1986, this means then that there are a whole host of families that are not getting any services to help them cope with the trauma they have experienced. As rates of suicide continue to climb, this population and mental health issues will also continue to rise.
Charmaine Perry is a counselor who works mostly with adults and couples in central New Jersey. Her passion is mental health and writing and finding ways to incorporate these two fields to advocate for mental health services for African and Caribbean Americans.