Overcoming childhood depression and suicidal thoughts

Artistic expression can open up communication with children

Each year in the United States, suicide claims three times more lives than homicide. It is one of the most devastating occurrences a family can experience, and it is happening in younger children. In youth ages 10 to 14, suicide is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and among the most preventable.

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According to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of 16,000 adolescents, one in five admitted to having thought about suicide. One in six actually had thought through a plan to end his or her life. These alarming statistics deserve attention from parents and professionals, who should know the warning signs and some tools to address them.

“It’s not always easy for parents to distinguish between normal teenage angst, ‘hormones’ and clinical depression, particularly if a child has a hard time expressing feelings to others,” said Bryan D. Carter, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist and director of the pediatric consultation-liaison service at Norton Children’s Hospital. “If you are concerned about your child, the most important thing you can do is listen carefully and openly, ask questions and avoid overreacting or being judgmental.”

Dr. Carter, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, also advises parents to be direct. Ask if your child has thought about suicide or a suicide plan. If the child says that it would be better if he or she were not alive, that others would be better off without him or her, or that the child wants to end his or her life, always take it seriously. Have your child evaluated by a qualified child/adolescent mental health specialist.

Norton Children’s Hospital has a short-term care inpatient psychiatric unit dedicated to the mental health of children and adolescents ages 2 to 18. While in the unit, children are observed and evaluated in a therapeutic setting. Expressive art therapy is one effective tool employed by the staff for communicating with, evaluating and treating children with depression and other emotional or behavioral disorders. Patients are given an array of art media and the freedom to express their thoughts and feelings in any form they wish. Some of the most popular materials are paint, magazines, pencils and even ceramic masks. Patients are given time to create almost every day as part of their therapy and evaluation while in the unit. They take their works home when they leave.

“The art gives me questions to ask, but it doesn’t give me answers,” said Judi Magder, pediatric art therapist at Norton Children’s Hospital. Rather than trying to interpret the art, Magder has the child interpret it for her. She asks questions about the piece and lets the child explain what is happening, what might happen next and what the characters in the piece are experiencing.

“We often project our feelings into art we create, but it is important not to project our feelings onto someone else’s art,” Magder said. “It is merely a medium to open up communication — but a very powerful one.”

Suicide is preventable. To speak with a professional, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255) .

–Lyndsay Mountz


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