Sun | Jan 20, 2019

Help! Help!

Published:Sunday | November 23, 2014 | 12:00 AMRyon Jones
Dr Maureen Irons-Morgan,
Dr Judith Leiba-Thomas

Inadequate parenting is one of the major contributing factors for most Jamaican children attempting suicide. Girlfriend/boyfriend conflicts, depression, trauma and mental illness also figure highly as triggers for children to consider or attempt to take their lives.

These are among the findings of a 2012 study by officials of the Ministry of Health in partnership with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The study found that 60.6 per cent of Jamaicans who attempted suicide that year were 25 years old or younger.

The data, compiled from 3,471 students across 38 schools across the island, revealed that 688 (19.8%) of the students were at risk for suicide, with 1,075 (35.5%) admitting to having contemplated taking their own lives in the past.

Equally scary was the fact that 25 per cent of those who said they have contemplated taking their lives reported that they would think about suicide often or very often.

The study, dubbed 'Risk Factors Associated With Youth Suicidality in Jamaica', indicated the need for the development of a comprehensive suicide prevention and intervention strategy in Jamaica with the schools, communities and practitioners at all levels of the health sector playing key roles.

According to consultant psychiatrist for St Catherine, Dr Michelle Henry, the study found that some of the main factors that contribute to adolescents contemplating or committing suicide are interpersonal conflict with intimate persons.

"We didn't really find that so much with the boys. What we did find with the boys was the problem with parents or grandparents; the person who is the disciplinarian," Henry told a Gleaner Editors' Forum last week.

Henry noted that instead of talking to adults about painful break-ups or problems being experienced with their boyfriends or girlfriends, adolescents with suicidal tendencies were more likely to talk to their peers.

"If they happen to have in some instances a close sibling, then that's the next person they speak to. They don't speak to any adults, they don't go to the guidance counsellor, they don't go to the teacher. The adults are too judgemental in this regard," said Henry.

Founder of the suicide prevention organisation, Choose Life International, Dr Donovan Thomas, is not surprised at the findings of the study.

"The literature actually points out that where teenagers become sexually involved and the relationship breaks up, the trauma that they go through is actually similar to what adults go through during the divorce proceedings, and their emotional state is not developed enough to be able to handle that," he said.

He said adolescents will go to adults to discuss these issues, but only if they are caring and non-judgemental.

"At the point of being suicidal is not the time to be giving all the lectures and making all the derogatory comments, but rather be supportive and get the help," he insisted.

"Stay away from anything that looks like condemnation and be facilitators. Get the children to talk about how they are feeling, get the children to talk about the challenges that they are facing, and let them know that you are supportive of them even in the difficulties and the challenges, and get professional help," said Thomas.


In the meantime, Henry noted that other suicide triggers include persons just feeling depressed, and depression from a wide range of things - their home situation may not be that great; there may be problems with school and repeating grades.

"Issues that also came up include persons who had experienced some levels of trauma, mainly from sexual abuse or from domestic violence. Another key factor as well is the development of mental illness which can also present as attempting suicide," added Henry.

According to the study, the older a person gets, the more other factors outside of interpersonal conflict with caregivers will give rise to suicidal thoughts and actions.

"In this study, the highest risk of suicidal behaviour was in the grade-10 age group, which is the mid-adolescent age group. Those are the most tumultuous years for adolescents and that is where we need to focus," Dr Judith Leiba-Thomas, director, child and adolescent health in the Ministry of Health, told the Editors' Forum.

"The parental factors weren't coming as strong at that age group, and I think that is where we need to look at peer factors as well as sexual issues, their exposure to the Internet and the world around us, which are causing stressors as well, and the biological factors which may be operative at that time.

"So parental factors are important and they put the building block for the children when they are going up to adolescence, but by mid-adolescence, other factors seem to come into play," added Leiba-Thomas as she responded to questions that "bad parenting" is in the mix of factors which cause suicidal thoughts in the young.


"A lot of our young people have stressors and experience stress which we are not aware of, and parents need to be aware of this and get help for them. A suicide attempt is a cry for help," said Leiba.

For Dr Maureen Irons-Morgan, director of mental health in the Ministry of Health, children most times model their parents so it is important for caregivers to lead by example.

"How do you react to crisis? How do you react when someone makes you angry? They (children) learn more from what you do than from what you say most of the times," said Irons-Morgan.

Dr Patrece Charles, executive director of the National Parenting Support Commission, gives four basic elements for effective parenting: nurturance, structure, recognition, and empowerment. She argued that if parents neglect these responsibilities, the children might be more at risk for committing suicide.

"You are more likely to recognise those signs of suicide if you are more involved in your child's life," said Charles.

"If the parents are not providing those four elements then they will more than likely miss those red flags that indicate suicide.

"There are certain things that parents would miss and various time frames that you would be able to help your child through certain issues, but if you are not there, if you are not involved, if you are not communicating, then perhaps you will miss it; and then your child feels alone.

"And if the child is developing an issue, they might be afraid to come to you because of the relationship that exists between you two. In that instance, the likelihood of suicide or other inappropriate behaviour - a child running away - may increase."

According to Charles, even in the years when other factors outside of conflict with parents may lead to a child contemplating or committing suicide, if parents maintain a close relationship with their children, it will allow them to spot these signs.

"This is Parents' Month and the theme - 'Building Circles of Involvement: Home, School and Community' - is for this very reason," said Charles.

"When parents ignore their children, when they don't know what's happening at school; when they don't know who their friends are or they are not around to even notice that they are depressed; or they are not able to recognise warning signs and red flags - a child not wanting to go to school, not wanting to go to church, not wanting to go down to the corner shop, which is something that they normally do; or a child acting in a very depressed way to an exam result.

"If a parent can't recognise that and provide the coping skills for a child to deal with unexpected situations, then we find that they are not being as effective."

Additional reporting by Nadine Wilson-Harris.