George Scott told the story of a fisherman, enjoying the peace and calm of the day.
One morning, the man heard a scream coming from the river. He saw a child and swam out, saving the child’s life. There was a big celebration in the village.
Over the coming days, there were more screams, and more saves. One day, the fisherman saved two children at once.
A meeting of the Council of Elders debated such issues as, how many fishermen are needed along the banks to wait for a save, and how many nets are needed to make those saves? Then the chief said, Why the hell are there so many kids in the river?
“Why are so many more of our children in these fast-flowing rivers asking to be saved?” Scott asked an audience of about 100 community members at North Brunswick Township High School on Jan. 9, relating the tale to present-day situations in which children are increasingly at risk for suicide.
Scott is a family therapist practicing at the Center for Counseling Services in Mercer County. He is a former adjunct instructor at The College of New Jersey and is a former director of Student Services in several public schools. He is currently the statewide resource coordinator for the Traumatic Loss Coalitions for Youth Program at Rutgers University.
Scott told the crowd that children must be healthy before they can be happy.
“Remember many of our kids have not experienced death in a close way,” he said, noting fear, anger, worry, numbness, shut downs and shattered assumptions about safety can arise in the aftermath. He said typically an adult provides care and comfort, and an explanation, but with suicide there is a stigma attached that can make talking about it embarrassing, uncomfortable or even judgmental in nature.
“It may even isolate your own children because they’re afraid to talk about it, or maybe they just don’t understand,” he said.
Scott said that suicide is a public health problem, specifically targeting children, the middle aged and people ages 75 into their 90s.
He also said that “suicide by death perpetuates suicide,” encouraging post-vention as a way to prevent more deaths. He said survivors of suicide can often feel isolated or blamed, and people who are vulnerable are at a greater risk of substance abuse.
“We are so pain-adverse that when we feel a great heartache we do what we can to avoid that hurt,” he said.
In New Jersey, suicide is the third leading cause of death in youths ages 10-24, according to the New Jersey Youth Suicide Report from 2018. The statistics are measured per 100,000 people; New Jersey is No. 49 on a list of 50 states, “but we are losing 80 kids every year,” Scott said, which he deems unacceptable. He also noted the No. 1 cause of death by suicide is guns.
Scott said parents should look for warning signs, as well as their gut feeling. However, to determine if a child is in danger or just experiencing adolescent behavior, he said it is best to call an expert for advice.
Some red flags are stockpiling pills, which could coincide with frequent visits to a grandparent’s house; buying and hiding a rope; cutting, burning, head banging, punching walls; or acting on a suicidal impulse but not succeeding.
Other signs include frequent complaints about physical illness, absenteeism from work or school, a decrease in school or work performance, temper outburst, anger towards a mother, bullying or intimidation, sleeping too much or too little, acting recklessly, saying goodbye to others, giving away prized possessions, and substance abuse, he said.
When chaos, pervasive anger and rage, addiction, violence toward others, feelings of fear or non-importance, untreated mental health concerns, any type of abuse, and the absence of a protective adult arise, children are more at risk, he said.
Scott said someone who has previously attempted suicide is 40 times more likely to try again. The risk is 20 times for depression, 19 times for drug abuse, 15 times for bipolar disorder, 9 times for schizophrenics and 6 times for alcoholics. Eating disorders can play into the risk of suicide as well, he said.
Community risk factors include incarceration, exposure to the media, the influence of others, not using safe messaging, a loss of friends or idols, or the anniversary of someone’s death, he said.
Therefore, social integration, healthy attachments, family cohesion, stability, self care, limited access to social media and video games, and a lack of access to means such as guns or pills, are all keys to keeping children healthy, he said.
“Healthy kids do not think about suicide,” Scott said. “All of us, we are hard wired to live. We will do anything to survive.”
Scott said there is no such thing as “perfect parenting,” but said something as simple as hugging a child can make a world of difference. He said studies show that to have value, a hug must last 20 seconds.
Aside from therapy and/or medication, self care includes plenty of rest, proper diet and nutrition, drinking plenty of water, exercising, practicing relaxation, seeking out supportive people and asking for help.
“The healthier a parent is, the healthier a child is by 400 percent,” he said. “Together, all of us are stronger than some of us. … You are not alone.”
Community resources include Rutgers University Behavioral Healthcare, Middlesex County Children’s Mobile Response & Stabilization System, 2nd Floor, National Lifeline, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Safety Plan App and TLC4teens.org.
To view a video of Scott’s presentation, visit nbtschools.org.
Contact Jennifer Amato at email@example.com.