UT Extension recommends caregivers, teachers, others be ready to help distressed individuals

Losing someone special to death, no matter the circumstance, is never easy. Hearing about the passing of a beloved public figure like actor and comedian, Robin Williams can be equally tough, especially when the cause is preventable, says Heather Wallace, assistant professor and a human development specialist with University of Tennessee Extension.

According to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, an estimated 850 people die by suicide in Tennessee every year. It’s the third leading cause of death among youth and young adults in the state and across the nation. “While deeply saddening, hearing about a person’s apparent self-inflicted death provides parents and families opportunities to have open conversations about difficult topics like death and suicide.” Wallace adds that conversations will vary depending on beliefs, culture and children’s ages.

Matt Devereaux, professor and a child development specialist with UT Extension Family and Consumer Sciences, says children in elementary school or younger should be guarded from exposure to media coverage focused on the cause of Robin Williams’ death. However, if they ask questions about suicide and death, Devereaux says that honesty is the best policy. “The important thing when speaking with young children is short and simple responses to their questions,” Devereaux said.  He also noted that children should be ensured that they always have a safe person to talk to should they ever have such thoughts or feel sad in a way that is different than just stubbing your toe.”

Devereaux adds that parents and caregivers should seize this opportunity to talk open and honestly with youth who are middle- and high-school age about the signs and symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts. “You will not cause a person to become suicidal just by talking about it,” he said. “Communicate clearly that you are a safe person that he or she can always reach out to for non-judgmental and honest conversations about mental health.”

Here are some of the signs and symptoms of suicidal thoughts and planning, along with resources to guide conversations, and where to turn for help.

Signs of Suicidal Thoughts and Plans

(From the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the non-profit organization Helpguide.org)

● Looking for a way to kill oneself, like searching online or buying items to assist suicide.
● Preoccupation with death.
Talking about (any of these):
   - Wanting to die or to kill oneself,

   - Feeling hopeless or no reason to live,

   - Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain,

   - Wanting to sleep and not wake up,

   - Being a burden to others.

● Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
● Acting anxious/agitated; being reckless.
● Sleeping too little or too much.
● Withdrawing or feeling isolated.
● Showing rage or talking about revenge.
● Displaying extreme mood swings.
● Sudden sense of calm and happiness after being extremely depressed.
● Giving away personal items for no apparent reason.

Need Help Now?

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline- 1-800-273-TALK (8255) - a free, 24-hour hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

Tennessee-specific - 1-855-CRISIS-1 (1-855-274-7471) or chat online (2 p.m. - 2 a.m. Eastern time)

If you’re with someone in need of help, experts recommend you take these steps:
● Stay with that person until he or she has the help they need.
● Ask to call a help lifeline for him or her.
● Persuade the person that he or she needs professional help. Take that person to the hospital if needed.

More Information is available from the the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. Evidence-based suicide prevention training for professionals is available from the QPR Institute.

The UT Institute of Agriculture provides instruction, research and public service through the UT College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, UT AgResearch, including its system of 10 research and education centers, and UT Extension offices in every county in the state.



Heather Wallace, assistant professor and human development specialist, UT Extension, 865-974-7193, heather.wallace@utk.edu


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