Study: Many parents don’t know their kids have contemplated suicide

Rita Giordano
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Half of parents whose teenagers have had thoughts of suicide don’t know it, and more than three-quarters of parents are unaware that their children think a lot about death, according to a new study.

Based on a survey of more than 5,000 children ages 11 to 17 and their parents or guardians, the study by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania researchers is believed to be the largest of its kind to date. The findings, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, come at a time when suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents and the rates for children age 10 to 14 are also on the rise.

“We identified that really large numbers of parents were unaware that their youth were thinking about killing themselves, and 75 percent did not know their kids were thinking a lot about death and dying,” said Rhonda Boyd, a study co-author and clinical psychologist with CHOP.

Denial: Moreover, when parents said they believed their offspring were having thoughts of suicide, most of those parents’ children denied having such thoughts.

“The discrepancy between parent and teen reports is quite alarming,” said study lead author Jason D. Jones, a CHOP research scientist. “Parental unawareness and adolescent denial of suicidal thoughts may prevent at-risk teens from receiving the mental-health services they need.”

That is especially true for kids of middle and high school age.

“Parents are usually the gatekeepers for their children’s access to health care,” Boyd said, “so if parents are unaware of their adolescents’ suicidal thoughts, these thoughts may go unassessed and could manifest into self-harm.”

Getting involved: The researchers stressed the need for continued training of primary-care doctors and awareness by adults who come in contact with youths.

“We need the whole community involved — people involved with youth through sports programs, religious organizations, the schools, to be looking out for these youths because many times they are not telling their parents,” Boyd said.

Others who work in youth advocacy and suicide prevention agree that there is much many people can do.

Matthew B. Wintersteen, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior with Thomas Jefferson University, said parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask their kids how they are and how their parents can help them.

“Listening is a great first step,” Wintersteen said.

Survivor: Jordan Burnham, 29, a suicide survivor who lives in the King of Prussia area, speaks to youths and adults about suicide prevention, as part of the Minding Your Mind organization. One of the main complaints he heard from young people is that their parents seem to minimize the pain they are going through, even when they try to talk about how they feel.

“I know for some parents, the immediate reaction is to give some guidance, give some feedback, but in all honesty, a lot of kids just want to be heard,” said Burnham, who jumped out of a window more than 10 years ago. “The unfortunate thing I hear over and over again from students is their parents are invalidating their feelings and what they’re going through.”

Laurie Burstein-Maxwell and her husband, Leland, did speak often with their son Dan, an honor student and athlete at Radnor High School, about his depression and feelings of despair. They also helped him get care. Yet Dan didn’t think he could confide in others, such as his teammates. He took his life in 2013.

His parents have since started DMAX Clubs, groups that encourage students, particularly on college campus, to talk about their feelings, no matter how dark. The organization will hold an education event on April 24 at the Shipley School. Burstein-Maxwell said all adults who work with children should be trained in helping youngsters believe that they can air their feelings.

“What we’re saying is, conversations matter,” she said.