Take children’s suicidal thoughts seriously!
Experts advise parents to be mindful of the various life crises affecting young people
SOME ADOLESCENTS believe that their Christian parents and loved ones often dismiss their struggle with mental health challenges, such as suicidal ideation.
Advice such as to “go and seek God”, “go and read your Bible”, or “go and pray” as the answer to a far more serious problem is typically hurled their way.
Despite the reality that these assertions may be well-intentioned, clergymen have recommended a more gentle approach for members of their flock who may not be well-equipped to handle such situations.
Kelsey Spalding, who attends Ardenne High School, is a member of Teen Hub, a centre that offers a safe environment for adolescents and holds sessions on sexual and reproductive health, career counselling, and mental health counselling.
She asserted that adults would sometimes respond inappropriately to young people who express suicidal ideation.
“They don’t try to see what the actual issue is. I feel like usually they’re just like, ‘You know what? Just go seek God because how you a go through them something here?’” she explained.
Instead of yelling, “just go tek up a Bible or read a book and go figure it out”, Spalding suggested that adults focus on why adolescents felt as though the only way to deal with their problems is suicide.
According to the State of the World’s Children Report 2021, nearly one in seven children and adolescents in Latin America and the Caribbean have a mental disorder.
A UNICEF-commissioned desk review on child and adolescent mental health by Dr Kai Morgan, a clinical psychologist, indicates that 20 per cent of Jamaican children are suffering from a mental health disorder.
In an interview with The Gleaner on Monday, the Reverend Phillip Johnson, pastor of Fingers from the Heart Ministries in Spanish Town, St Catherine, explained that while pastors are mandated to preach the gospel of Christ and “kingdom lifestyle”, it is also important to be mindful of the various life crises affecting young people “that are staring us in the face”.
As he reflected, Johnson stated that one of the “biggest mistakes [that] we make as pastors, as leaders, [and] as a church, is to think that” urging someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts to read the Bible or pray is an appropriate response.
“We continue to push this down the throats of our youth, believing that, ‘hey, if you understand the spiritual concept then everything is fine’, and we ignore the other signs that are there,” he said, noting that clear signs of mental health challenges affecting youngsters are often ignored.
He instead argued that persons must use the word of God alongside methods of understanding people from the heart of their experiences as Jesus did.
Christians have long held the view that suicide is immoral and some believe that it excludes a person from an opportunity to experience eternal life in Heaven. Suicide is seen as a violation of the commandment “thou shalt not kill” and a rejection of God’s gift of life.
Reverend Ajilon Ferdinand, pastor of Papine New Testament Church of God, is of the view that some churchgoers and Christian parents are not appropriately guided on how to respond to adolescents who show signs of suicidal ideation or other mental health issues.
As a result, he told The Gleaner, they often send their child to pray, which is not in itself a bad idea, but it does not necessarily give them a chance to express what is triggering such thoughts.
While he understands the intention of those who believe that a child could “read a verse in the Bible with a message that can comfort their hearts, that can give them a sense of purpose” and that it could, indeed, be the case, for them to simply recommend this method without being involved in the process would prove futile.
Ferdinand advises parents to avoid being dismissive. He said an in-depth, parent-child discussion must be had, which could start by talking casually but meaningfully as this can help parents to get to know what their child is experiencing, thinking, and doing in their life.
Parents must also listen attentively and non-judgmentally, he said, and “tune in” so as to be aware of the child’s unexpressed thoughts.
He further stated that parents must give and gain feedback as a good way to allow the child to have a sense that they are being understood.
“So, the parents need to find a way of letting the child know, I understand what you are saying to me,” he said.
Ferdinand further advises that the parents and child jointly come up with solutions to the issues.
“If the issue is too great beyond the ability of the parents to understand ... and to appropriately respond, then, refer the child to a pastor who is capable of doing that or get someone else to find more professional [and] competent to help with suicidal ideations,” he said.
Dr Donovan Thomas, founder of Choose Life International, a faith-based suicide prevention and grief counselling organisation, believes parents need to be aware of a number of dos and don’ts while interacting with suicidal children.
First, he advises them not to get trapped in secrecy. If a child is suicidal, he suggests that parents do not hide it but instead seek professional help.
“Some parents go the extreme and saying ‘alright, go ahead and kill yourself’ jokingly, for instance,” he said, adding that one child attempted suicide over a decade ago after such a response from her mother.
“And when she attempted to kill herself and the mother heard about it, she literally fainted,” he said, urging parents to not ignore overt or subtle threats from a child to end his or her life.
Thomas further warns that if a child is suicidal, the parent must never leave the child unsupervised.
“Engage with the child as much as possible,” he said, noting that parents must also be very deliberate in encouraging positive lifestyle changes.
Thomas further encouraged parents to make a safety plan, which entails things which can be done when a he child feels as though they want to hurt themselves.
“It may be that I’m going to walk down the road [or] go to the supermarket and grab my favourite snack. I’m going to call my friend, mom, [or] go to the hospital if I feel as if the passion to hurt oneself is greater than one’s ability to restrain one’s passion,” he said.
Finally, Thomas stated that parents have got to be willing to play a supportive role over the long haul without treating children as though they are fragile. He said they must given room to grow and improve, even after a suicide attempt.