It’s not easy to dispel the stigma around suicide, but Calgary’s Centre for Suicide Prevention takes initiative by tackling the particularly difficult stigma that surrounds children’s suicide.
“It’s such a repulsive thought and we don’t know how to process it,” says Mara Grunau, executive director of the centre.
Grunau says there is a widespread stigma surrounding mental health in children that stems from society attributing blame to parents and not believing children can kill themselves without a mature concept of death.
But without the awareness of adults around them, children at risk of suicide can’t get the help they need.
“If [a child is] out to hurt themselves in any capacity, in any fashion, alarm bells should go off. That is not what we expect as healthy behaviour from children,” Grunau emphasizes.
CSP’s suicide statistics say that in Canada between 2007 and 2012, about 74 per cent of reported deaths by suicide were in adults between the ages of 20 and 59. This means that somewhere in the other 26 per cent lay children who took their own lives.
Grunau says it isn’t a big number, but it is still an important one.
“When it comes to suicide in children, it isn’t common. It does happen, but it isn’t common,”she says.
But Dave MacLeod, psychologist and suicide prevention trainer with CSP, emphasizes that cases of suicide in children are likely under-reported.
“If a child dies by a gunshot wound, it’s really easy to say, ‘Well a gun – that’s an adult technology. That’s not a child’s technology.’ It’s easy to call that an accident,” says MacLeod.
But it doesn’t stop there. The number of suicides in children is low, but children having thoughts and feelings about suicide, a phenomenon known as “suicide ideation” is a more prevalent issue.
Without proper help, a child struggling with suicidal thoughts could turn into a suicidal teenager who finds the means to end their life.
“We strongly believe that we need to intervene with children experiencing suicide ideation because it intensifies with age,” says Grunau.
The Centre for Suicide Prevention works to dispel the stigma on suicide in children through three of its nine workshops: Tattered Teddies, Straight Talk, and Little Cub.
“We talk about the fact that suicide in children does exist, protective and risk factors for children, and warning signs that they might show,” Grunau explains about Tattered Teddies, an interactive half-day workshop.
MacLeod, one of the trainers of Tattered Teddies, says that changes in behaviour are something to look out for in an at-risk child.
“Or sort of Russian Roulette behaviour, when they start doing riskier kinds of things and not seeming to care much about safety or how they’re coming across to other people,” MacLeod says.
“But there’s only one way to know whether a person is having conscious thoughts of suicide, and that’s to ask.”
Grunau says there are many resources for people who are concerned about a child around them or have any questions.
“In Calgary, we’re very fortunate to have the Distress Centre, who answers their phone 24-7. If you’re worried about someone and you don’t know what to do, you can call them,” Grunau says. “They will talk to you, help navigate you through the system, but also navigate you through the conversation.”
In order to get children who are at risk of suicide the help they need, MacLeod says society needs to face the problem head-on and work together to cease the taboo.
“The more that people talk about it, the more that people normalize it and see that it doesn’t mean weakness and it doesn’t mean craziness.”
The workshops Straight Talk and Tattered Teddies are being held in Calgary on Feb. 8, 2017. Learn more about CSP and its workshops at www.suicideinfo.ca/workshops.
The editor responsible for this article is Nina Grossman and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org