A ninth-grader at Provo High School in Utah gave his watch to his best friend, saying he wouldn’t be needing it anymore. He told five other friends he planned to kill himself, but no one told an adult. The young man committed suicide the next day.
Tragedies like this happen every day, says Dr. Greg Hudnall, founder of HOPE4UTAH, which develops teams of peer mentors at schools across Utah and in 14 other states.
“Before they attempt suicide, seven or eight out of 10 young people will reach out to a friend,” Hudnall says. “They’ll give some kind of clue, some kind of warning sign.”
But they’ll rarely let adults in on their deadly secret, say Hudnall and Genevieve Morris, who coordinates suicide-prevention efforts for public schools in Grand Junction, Colo.
“What research shows us is that the most beloved and well-connected teacher is still not going to know first about that student that is really struggling,” Morris says. “Their friends are going to know. They know what’s cool before we know, and they know who’s really struggling before we know.”
Given that reality — and the fact that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5,700 Americans ages 15-24 kill themselves each year — it’s incumbent upon parents and Scout leaders alike to understand the risk factors and warning signs of suicide. We must make sure our kids and the young people we serve know these indicators as well.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, risk factors include depression, substance-abuse disorder, chronic pain, easy access to unsecured guns at home, a prior suicide attempt, family history of suicide and being exposed to other people’s suicidal behavior.
Warning signs include talking about wanting to die or being a burden on loved ones, complaining of unbearable pain (physical or emotional), increased use of alcohol or drugs, withdrawing from family and friends, changing eating and/or sleeping habits, displaying extreme mood swings and, like that Provo ninth-grader, giving away possessions.
When Hudnall trains peer mentors, he shares a simple message: If a friend shows any warning sign, talk to that friend and try to get them to immediately go with you to a trusted adult. “If they refuse, then it’s your responsibility to go to the adult,” he says.
It’s also OK to initiate the conversation, Morris says.
“It’s absolutely OK to ask directly if somebody is thinking about suicide,” she says. “If you’re thinking, ‘Should I be concerned about suicide?’ there’s a chance they might be, too.”
For more information on suicide and how you can help save a life, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call 800-273-8255 anytime — day or night. You can also download and share the BSA Safety Moment about youth suicide prevention at go.scoutingmagazine.org/safetymoments
When Tragedy Strikes
When Troop 130 in Spokane, Wash., lost a Scout to suicide in 2017, Scoutmaster Arron Thompson picked up the phone right away. “I broke out my phone list and called every parent to let them know their Scout would need help and support,” he recalls.
The troop also invited a counselor to its next meeting.
“We kept the dialogue open,” Thompson says. “We let the Scouts speak, let them cry, let them take time away, but we encouraged them to keep moving forward.”
Perhaps most important, however, they let their Scouts know they’re never alone, and that help and hope are just a phone call away.
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