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Charmaine Perry
Jul 06, 2017

Underserved Populations: Parents of Suicidal Teens

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.

Research

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.

Recommendations

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.
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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. 

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7 Comments

  1. 7 Gloria 24 Jul
    Suicide is a disturbing topic; it's hard to acknowledge, and very difficult to talk about. I come from a family that has had a lot of depression in the last 3 generations, and there have been 3 - 5 suicides in that time (drug & alcohol overdoses were in there, and it was difficult to ascertain the actual intent).  
     
    As a longtime, now retired teacher working with paper editing service and paper writing service, I have seen a number of depressed and vulnerable teens, and now I find that I am worrying about my adolescent grandsons. I have not seen 
    any of the 13Reasons...., and I'm not sure I want to. At a minimum, I hope the series is a wake-up call for the adults in our nation who are so self-consumed that they are clueless about the stresses facing our young people these days. At the other end, I worry about the possible damage of the number of episodes and constant reshowings that are inevitable in this era of the computer and social media; and there is so little GOOD stuff to counter it. 
     
    Every adult in our country has an obligation to consider how young people are being impacted by the culture we are passing on - the next generation will be our caretakers - or not - and essentially the older generation has a duty to care for and protect the young.  
    At a minimum, the adults in the nation - too often on TV and social media - are role models for those in their early years. Teens are looking around them, trying to decide who they will be, and while Mom and/or Dad are their first role models, once the adolescent years hit, things become VERY complicated.  
     
    Yes, every generation has its difficulties; what is particularly different in the last 20 years, however, is the advent of an overwhelming amount of information available to tweens & teens at their fingertips....and generally they do not have the developmental nor life expriences tools to process it well. Add to that the multiple pressures in large schools of testing pressures, bullying, peer pressure and hormones, we have a lot to worry about.
  2. 6 Charmaine Perry 07 Oct
    Hi Gloria,

    Thank you for reading my post and for your response. You have hit on so many good points, I could write another blog on your post alone! Social media and technology has changed our lives in so many ways. Our society, politics, social infrastructures, and laws have yet to catch up. We know the great benefits of social media and the internet, but we only talk about the dark side when severe issues occur. We all struggle with the need to be on all the time and the effects they have on our self-esteem and self-worth. These feelings push us into isolation and loneliness and since no one wants to talk on the phone or face to face anymore, these feelings just intensify. We have to be watchful of our loved ones, both young and old, just as you mentioned about your grandsons. They really are under so much pressure to to fit in and fit a role all the time. We are all so busy just trying to keep up with every day demands, that simple courtesies are so rare now. Lastly, you mentioned legacy, that has really changed my mindset and my work. To imagine the legacy I want to leave behind to my family and children, and trying to work backwards and create goals to build that legacy has been the way I work towards have the legacy I want. But as we are all so busy, we are have to drastically change our lives to slow down and ponder these important issues so that we can make those changes that we need to.

    You are right. We do have a lot to worry about. But, we can start by making small changes in our lives, we
    would all be so surprised by how much it could change our lives. 

    Charmaine Perry, MS, NCC, LAC
     











  3. 5 Sarah 27 Jan
    As a parent of a young suicidal child with anxiety, I do experience the stress, weekly intense periods, and constant uncertainty of what the day will bring. My child desperately wants us and her therapist to fix her bad thoughts and make it go away. It breaks my heart that it's not that simple knowing this will be a lifelong journey and struggle. I live with the uncertainty of whether ideation will turn to action or other impulsive behaviors as we deal with the compounding factor of puberty. I have looked and looked for research-based resources and parent support groups (not online forums) for supporting on coping and staying resilient as a parent. It's absurd that there isn't a plethora of resources on maintaining your sanity as a caregiver. We have such resources for Alzheimer's and Cancer patient caregivers, among other diseases, but not serious mental health disorders, particularly those that are chronic and hard to navigate. And I'm one of the lucky ones with access to great health care and mental health services for our family along with an understanding work environment and community of friends. If I'm struggling this much to make sense of things and stay resilient, my heart breaks for other parents/caregivers with less support. The disease burden is clear...resources and support for caregivers is a must.
  4. 4 Charmaine Perry 13 Feb
    Hi Sarah,

    My prayers for you and your family. Suicide is one of the most heartbreaking issues that we as a people are living through. I can't imagine what it's been like for you. Firstly, I think it would be helpful to seek your own therapist to help you manage the daily stressors and emotions that may arise.Secondly, though this may seem like a simple thought, I would ask you to consider how you and your family may view your child through a strength-based lense, I think having your own therapy can help you with this approach. Lastly, may I be so bold to suggest maybe starting your own support group? I know that this may be another thing on your plate, but being surrounded by others who are dealing with some of the same things may help you to manage.
    Again, my prayers for you and your family. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment.

    Charmaine
  5. 3 Suzanne Hawkins 24 Apr
    Whew! You have uncovered a huge need and a huge gap in vital support.  Thank you for validating the thoughts and feelings of a parent group we found ourselves in the middle of about 6 months ago. It is safe to say that we have struggled for footing, sleep, breath, understanding, education, and sometimes in simply knowing the next step to take. We have been thankful our daughter has received such excellent care at a children’s hospital in town.  However, in the midst of crisis, we were left to figure out everything from counseling options, words to use with family, how to approach her public school regarding attendance, safety in returning to school, addressing our friends and caring church, insurance, misinformation about suicide, understanding of her emotions and a plethora of new words we had to navigate, dealing with tears dozens of times a day, and living in fear of caring for a child with such limited understanding of symptoms and treatment techniques being taught. There is the beginning of a list that parents ask early on in the marathon we are told is ahead.
     
    Late at night, I google for information, reassurance we are on the right track, stories of outcome or a glimpse down the road ahead.  We are told to focus on self-care but it seems out of reach.  We are told to prepare for a marathon with no training manual. We know the importance of keeping in touch for a growing marriage of nearly 30 years, but are at a loss for words, are dealing so differently, and are on edge ‘ watching’ every waking moment and every hour of light and listening sleep. (And yet we thankful to be working through this with a partner. I’m not sure how a single parent could deal with having a suicidal teen.) We are thankful for an experienced and compassionate outpatient therapist who cares for us  as much as she is allowed to professionally.  
    When I asked for support or at very least, reading material to help us as parents, I received an honest answer from a psychiatrist that very little existed because the kids and causes were so wide spread.  Thank you for giving this some thought... and praying that parents who walk in the path we walked and are still walking will soon have some traction.
  6. 2 Charmaine Perry 09 May
    Hi Suzanne,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am also very grateful that you have found mental health practitioners who are kind and supportive to you and your family. Yes, that psychiatrist is correct. Suicide has become such a widespread issue that policies  and much of society has not caught up with, like many other mental health issues. So, parents and caregivers are left to navigate these fields alone. The truth is that the practicality of the suicide, as you noted above, takes so much effort and time to manage, oftentimes, the caregivers become an after thought. No, this is not right and should not happen, but not enough resources are being directed to issues such as these to combat these issues. My hope is that you will keep coming in contact with compassionate caregivers. And although, it is a tall order, try to take small moments to replenish yourself because it is truly needed. You cannot care for your daughter from an empty cup.
    -- Charmaine

  7. 1 Jessica 04 Aug
    Thank you for this article. 3 weeks ago my 18 year old son tried to end his life. I have been feeling like I am lost at sea all alone. My husband and I have had our struggles dealing with this. And I feel like my other 3 kids are handling it ok, but I don't want them to feel like they're being overlooked. 

    He is home from the hospital now for 2 days. I feel like the behavioral hospital sort of dropped the ball on the family on how to deal. My son gets intensive out patient therapy 3 times a week now, but as a family we don't know what to say or do. It's scary 

    I was hoping to find a group for parents or families near me and I guess I will keep looking.

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