After 2 teen suicides, W. MI parents urged to check in with kids


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After two teen suicides in neighboring West Michigan counties, professionals are advising parents to talk to their children about mental health.

In mid-November, a 16-year-old boy in Zeeland died by suicide.

A week later, a 15-year-old boy in Hamilton took his own life.

The suicides were not connected and parents in both cases told investigators there were no warning signs.

The youth group at the Hamilton church where one of the families attended has returned to face-to-face meetings to ensure kids have the emotional and spiritual support they need right now.

“When that happens twice in our community or a community very near ours, it’s like, whoa, this is something we need to take into consideration,” said Jason Scoles, family life pastor at Cultivate Community Church in Hamilton.

“This is not something that’s far away and in a totally different context, this is happening in our backyard, and what are we going to do about it?”

Scoles’ church made the decision to switch from online youth group meetings to small in-person gatherings, which they’re conducting outside with masks and social distancing.

“We’ve really been struggling with, ‘OK, how do we take care of our kids?’ Not just physically, (which) is so, so important, but also how do we take care of them mentally, emotionally and spiritually?” questioned Scoles, who noted that isolation and restrictions due to COVID-19 are taking a toll on teenagers.

“Prom is getting canceled or changed. Homecoming dances, sports, even just virtual learning. It’s all changed and it’s really tough. It’s tough to not know what’s happening. It’s tough to not have consistent structure.”

Scoles said the church has been offering resources to parents and encouraging them to have conversations with their children.

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Mental health professionals also advise parents to ask their kids how they’re doing emotionally.

“I do think that we need to check in with our children, maybe when we would not have before,” said Barbara Hawkins-Palmer, executive director of the Healthy Kent program at the Kent County Health Department.

“Our kids are isolated. They’re not interfacing with friends, (not benefitting from) those relationships that are often important during adolescent years. These situations … can exacerbate the depression that they may have before been able to manage with friends, being with teachers, being in clubs and doing sports. All of those things have changed,” Hawkins-Palmer said.

While she urges parents to check in with their children even if warning signs are not present, Hawkins-Palmer said parents should be particularly vigilant if their child’s behavior has changed.

“Maybe they’re sleeping more. Or they’re sleeping less. They’re not eating the same. They’re not reaching out to their friends. They’re not engaging in things they used to be interested in. You know, they used to go out and shoot baskets and now they’re just sitting in their room. Those are signs that something’s going on and we need to ask, ‘Hey, I noticed these things about you. You’re not the same, or you’re acting a little differently. What’s going on?’ Then let them share and listen.”

If your child needs mental health treatment, you can consult the step-by-step resource guide recently published by several Kent County organizations, including Healthy Kent, the CHIP Mental Health Workgroup and the Suicide Prevention Coalition.

Hawkins-Palmer said parents should not be afraid to ask their children if they’re thinking about hurting themselves.

“It’s a myth that if you talk about it, that will drive them to commit suicide,” Hawkins-Palmer said.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agree.

“Parents should know that asking their child about whether they are thinking about suicide is important and won’t put the idea in the child’s head,” wrote a spokesperson with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in an email exchange with News 8.

The SAMHSA spokesperson also noted that concerned parents, as well as the young person in need, can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255).

“SAMHSA has been tracking data from hospital emergency departments, as well as media reports of suicides. We suspect COVID-19 has contributed to the suicides that have occurred in 2020,” wrote the spokesperson.

Medical examiners in several West Michigan counties including Kent, Ottawa, Allegan, Kalamazoo and Muskegon, tell News 8 they have not seen a significant increase in suicides this year.

Those same counties have, however, reported substantial increases in overdose deaths in 2020.

On its website, SAMHSA lists suicide warning signs and steps to take.

“The causes of suicide are complex and determined by multiple combinations of factors, such as mental illness, substance abuse, painful losses, exposure to violence, and social isolation,” reads SAMHSA’s website.

Among the warning signs:

  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
  • Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live

“The risk is greater if the behavior is new, or has increased, and if it seems related to a painful event, loss or change,” read the SAMHSA website.

Steps to take if you believe someone is at risk, per SAMHSA:

  • Call 911, if danger for self-harm seems imminent
  • Ask them if they are thinking about killing themselves (This will not put the idea into their head or make it more likely that they will attempt suicide)
  • Listen without judging and show you care
  • Stay with the person (or make sure the person is in a private secure place with another caring person) until you can get further help
  • Remove any objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call SAMHSA’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255) and follow their guidance.

— Online Resources:

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