Knights of Columbus raise teen suicide awareness

Dr. Shayla Sullivant, psychiatrist on staff at Children’s Mercy Hospital, gave a talk to parents Nov. 7 at St. Therese-North parish. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

PARKVILLE — Moms and dads waited in anticipation in the lower level of St. Therese-North Church Nov. 7, wanting to hear psychiatrist Shayla Sullivant’s presentation on statistics, preventative tips, clues and what a parent can do if they sense something isn’t right with their child or a friend. Pastor of St. Therese Parish Father Joe Cisetti described Sullivant, who is on staff at Children’s Mercy Hospital, as having “intensive experience helping parents and teens through difficult times.”

The St. Therese Knights of Columbus Pope John Paul 1 Council #7199 hosted the evening. One of the Knight’s attributes is friendship to youth, and with that in mind Grand Knight Rob Perschau contacted Dr. Sullivant and invited her to present the program titled ‘Prepped and Ready: Parenting into the Teen Years.’

Sullivant began with ‘Self-Care’: parents taking care of themselves. Dr. Sullivant said that self-care—coffee with friends, a walk, reading a book, gardening, shopping, playing music, whatever relieves stress—also provides good role modeling for kids.

“Taking better care of yourself helps you take better care of your kids,” she said.

The presentation explored screen time, the time teens spend on phones, computers, Ipads or other tablets; eating disorders and how to prevent them; substance use, including vaping devices like Juul (the flavored pods used with Juul devices contain as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes); suicide prevention and home safety (firearm and medication storage). These are things that our parents probably never even thought of as putting children and teenagers at risk.

The teenage brain is very different from a fully matured adult brain, Dr. Sullivant explained. Sensation-seeking rises in teenagers, emotions are very developed, but judgement doesn’t develop until later. This is one of the reasons she encourages parents to ban screens—phones, computers, and other personal screens—from their teen’s bedroom. A parent most likely won’t know if and what a teen is texting, emailing or Instagramming in the middle of the night, so it’s best if it’s prevented. Also, research has shown that the blue light from a phone or computer screen decreases melatonin production which disrupts the sleep a teenager needs.

The sensation-seeking and emotional development of the teenaged brain is another reason to consider banning phones and screens from a teen’s bedroom. Consider this statistic from Dr. Sullivant’s presentation: 22 percent of ‘at risk’ seventh graders are sexting; teens who are sexting are five times more likely to engage in sexual activity. Other examples of concerns over heavy social media use include a 14 year old male contacted by a male perpetrator on X-box, posing as ‘a friend’, asking intrusive sexual questions; a 14 year old female who shared a topless photo with a boyfriend who shared it with the entire school when they broke up; a 16 year old female who met a man out of state online and drove off to meet him without parental permission, and a 15 year old male learning new eating disorder behaviors from pro-eating disorder websites.

Screens are an important part of life these days, at work, at school and at home. Most teens and their phones are joined at the hip, but there are times and places where phones and tablets can and should be put aside. Dr. Sullivant suggested eating dinner together as a family, talking over and sharing the day. She added that homework, if done with the aid of a computer or tablet, should be overseen by a parent, and no phones allowed. Turning off alerts and regularly checking a teen’s social medial accounts may also help.

A fear parents may have and hide from their teen, and sometimes from themselves, is suicide. Emotions play a big role in teen suicides especially when relationships break up, or a teen feels friendless or bullied at school. Emotions also play a role in eating disorders, experimentation with addictive substances or other forms of self-abuse. Additional factors include genetics, family history, stress, impulsivity and/or depression. Early signs of eating disorders include significant weight fluctuations; changes in eating habits (‘healthy’, vegan or gluten-free), as well as increased exercising; belly pain in context of weight loss; signs of vomiting, visits to the bathroom after eating; episodes of passing out, light-headedness, and low heart rate. Parents should be aware and share what they’ve noticed with their teen. Eating disorders are often accompanied by shame, Dr. Sullivant said, and suggested “parents should listen to their own gut,” before getting angry.

She recommended parents start a conversation about suicide risks before noticing the signs of risk. Ask if a teen is looking for a way out of a situation. Teens may not understand the finality of death and not realize their parents and medical/psychiatric professionals want to help them. Kids as young as 7 or 8 who experienced trauma or tragedy have attempted and succeeded in committing suicide. She showed signs to watch out for in the presentation, including poor grooming habits, changes in eating habits, failing grades and exhibits reckless behavior. Other signs of risk include increasing discord with friends and parents, frequent stomach or head complaints, sexual or gender identity issues, substance abuse, cutting back on activities and shutting down. If parents learn that their child has been bullied, experimented with self-injury or has attempted suicide, they should contact their pediatrician or a child-psychiatrist without delay.

A troubled or depressed teenager may also model their action on ‘suicide models’, such as Robin Williams, called ‘the Contagion Effect’.

Two common means of youth suicide are medications and firearms. Dr. Sullivant pointed out that more than 80 percent of youth suicides involve a gun their parents have in the home. She said gun suicides among adolescents and young adults ages 15-24 increased 60 percent from 2007 – 2014. And only 18 percent of those teens who committed suicide were getting treatment. Approximately 60 percent of suicides involve a gun.

Medications involved in suicides include Benadryl, Ibuprofen, Xanax, Delsym cough syrup and Imodium. What can be done? Securely lock up firearms and medications, leaving only a small amount of medications available for use. When medications are outdated or no longer needed, empty the bottle into something non-palatable like used coffee grounds or cat litter, seal in a plastic bag and dispose in the trash. Scratch other info off the bottle before disposal.

Keep in mind that many crises are short-lived, Dr. Sullivant said. “Less than 10 minutes lapse between the decision and the action for 47 percent in a study of individuals who attempted suicide (Deisenhammer, E.A. etal, 2009). Impulsivity plays a critical role. If a method isn’t available, the action may not happen. Limiting access is vastly underused.”

She concluded with a message of hope. “Many amazing people in this world have struggled and made it.” Abraham Lincoln, St. Therese of Lisieux, Elton John and Oprah Winfrey were a few of those she named. Following her presentation, Dr. Sullivant answered questions posed by a long line of parents for more than half an hour.

Helpful Numbers: Eating Disorder Helpline 1-800-931-2237; Children’s Mercy Hospital Emergency Room (816) 234-3430; Teen Clinic (816) 960-3050.


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September 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph