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Pediatric mental health was recently declared a crisis by leadership at Children’s Hospital Colorado. But to those who work in the field of youth mental health and suicide prevention, the crisis isn’t new. Rather, it’s finally getting the attention — and potentially the resources — it deserves. 

Parents, guardians and adults to can take steps to help support children who may be struggling with mental health issues. Here are three things youth suicide prevention experts recommend you do to help keep kids in your life safe this summer.

Make sure they have a trusted, honest adult to turn to

“The biggest protective factor in preventing youth suicide is youth having a positive adult that they can connect with,” said Scott Smith, executive director of the Alliance for Suicide Prevention of Larimer County, Colorado. He recognized that not all kids have good relationships with parents, or even parents at home, and called on the community to fill this role whenever they can. 

“It’s not just on parents. It’s on neighbors, coaches, strangers,” he said. “Just check in with people, and with young people a little bit more, about how they’re doing … it doesn’t hurt to smile at a stranger.”

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Lena Heilmann, suicide prevention strategies manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said it’s important that a child’s trusted adult do more than just be there. They need to take time to authentically connect and build a relationship in which the adult is “affirming, supportive and validating” to a child’s emotions and situations, she said. 

Have conversations, and have them often 

Experts agree that having conversations around mental health and emotions is one of the most important things adults can do to check in with children regarding suicide ideation.  

Smith said when adults start conversations about their own mental health, it can help destigmatize talks of suicidal ideation and make children more open to sharing their feelings. 

My brother died by suicide two years ago. I am not who I used to be. And that’s OK.

Heilmann recommends having a conversation about mental health and emotions whenever you recognize a mood change in a child. Whether from sad to happy or happy to sad, it’s the perfect time to start a conversation about how they’re feeling, she said. 

And if you’re worried about introducing the idea of suicide to a child by asking if they’ve thought about it? Don’t be. 

“All the evidence points towards, if you directly ask someone or youth if they’re thinking about suicide, you’re not going to plant the idea in their head … actually, they’ll be honest with you,” Smith said. 

Make sure they’re getting sleep, keeping a routine 

“Sleep is protective against suicidal despair, and protective against a lot of mental health conditions,” Heilmann said. “And young people need a lot of sleep.”

The 2019 Healthy Kids Colorado survey found that the majority of youths in the state are sleep deprived, so Heilmann said adults doing whatever they can to ensure kids are getting enough sleep — but keep an eye out for too much — is important. 

Hand-in-hand with enough sleep should be a sense of routine. 

Many students struggled to find routine this past year while jumping from remote learning to hybrid to in-person learning, but in the summer they lose whatever semblance of routine the school year did provide. 

Chris Weiss, executive director of Second Wind Fund, an organization seeking to increase access to mental health care, said it’s important for kids to build a routine over the summer, ideally one that involves staying active and finding ways to express themselves, as the consistency can help keep their mental health in check. 

Mental health resources 

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.

Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.

For people who identify as LGBTQ, if you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, you can also contact The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline 24/7/365 at 1-866-488-7386.

The Trans Lifeline is a peer support service run by trans people, for trans and questioning callers.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has resources if you need to find support for yourself or a loved one. 

The website I Hurt Myself Today has resources on self-harm. 

Peer support resources

You can locate peer support resources at warmline.org. 

curated list of online and phone peer to peer support

The Marco Polo app helps friends and family stay connected

Molly Bohannon covers education for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @molboha or contact her at mbohannon@coloradoan.com. 

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