Looking past teen ‘angst and moods’ for suicide warning signs

By Erika Wurst For Chronicle Media

Katie Baker, program director of Elyssa’s Mission, discusses warning signs of suicide during a presentation at Yorkville Middle School on Jan. 26. More than 100 parents showed up for the free presentation, one of several that she gives at schools across the Chicagoland area. (Photo by Erika Wurst / for Chronicle Media)

More than 120 concerned parents filed into the Yorkville Middle School auditorium Jan. 26 evening with one thing on their minds: To keep their kids alive.

“Tonight your being here is a critical step towards prevention,” said Melissa Molitor of Elyssa’s Mission, a suicide prevention program aimed at parents and adolescents. “You will learn the warning signs and the risk factors for suicide. You will learn to talk to your child about this often taboo topic and how to get them help when they need it.”

The mission is one close to Molitor’s heart, as she lost her best friend Elyssa to suicide during their sophomore year of high school.

Elyssa’s parents took the tragedy as a catalyst for prevention and created Elyssa’s Mission to help educate parents and students about suicide.

Elyssa’s Mission provides hands-on support to many Chicagoland public and private schools and community organizations in order to educate students, staff and parents on how to recognize and assist those teens most at-risk.

The organization fully funds and implements the SOS Signs of Suicide Prevention Program in over 100 middle and high schools in Illinois and will begin working with Yorkville Middle School eighth-graders in the spring.

“Elyssa did a good job of wearing a mask. If you asked her, everything was good and, a lot of times it was,” Molitor said while looking back on her friend’s plight. “But, underneath all of those layers she was struggling every day.”

According to Elyssa’s Mission Program Director Katie Baker, Elyssa’s struggle is not uncommon. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34, and that 4,600 youth commit suicide every year, Baker said

Before these teens take their final actions there are often warning signs that can spark prevention, Baker said.

“It’s so important to recognize what those warning signs are,” she said. “Believe it or not, there’s still this myth out there that young people can’t experience clinical depression. That they’re just moody or full of angst. Let’s talk about what typical adolescent behavior looks like.”

Parents shouted out behaviors ranging from attention seeking to and minor mood swings, which can be normal for teens. But, Baker pointed out several behaviors that shouldn’t be ignored.

Teens and adolescents taking about suicide or death, or giving always possessions can be a good indicator that they might be thinking about taking their lives.

Talking about life as meaningless, neglecting personal appearance or dropping out of loved activities are other cues, Baker said.

It’s important to be aware of these potential risk factors, and to learn how to talk to our children about them when they arise, she said.

Taking a proactive approach to suicide prevention could save lives.

“Check in with your teen. Take the time to sit down and ask them how they are doing, who their friends are, and how their relationships are going,” Baker suggested.

She encouraged parents to get on their children’s social media platforms, to connect with their children’s friends and to monitor all school work.

And, as important as it is to recognize these clues in our own children, it’s equally as important to identify them in our children’s friends, she said.

“It’s so critical that if you see warning signs in one of your child’s friends that you communicate that immediately to a parent. You might feel uncomfortable about this, and that’s understandable. But, you have a responsibility to share what you heard,” Baker said.

Most importantly, if you’re concerned someone’s behavior has turned suicidal, just ask.

“Ask, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ We have to stop making those words taboo. We don’t know unless we ask,” she said.

For more information about suicide prevention, signs and treatment options visit http://elyssasmission.org/.




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