There’s no manual for raising children, the old adage goes, but they also say it takes a village. But who do parents turn to when a child expresses the desire to end their own life?
Just a few years ago, Kristen Keller and her husband found themselves face to face with just that unthinkable scenario. Their then 9-year-old son’s depression had reached a fever pitch. Keller says their son had been expressing what many would consider adult thoughts about depression and his own mortality since he was 5.
“It breaks my heart, especially with kids, because when you’re an adult and you know how dark that place is, to see your son going through those feelings is just… ” Keller trails off, unable to find a word or phrase that can translate the gravity of the emotion.
Keller and her husband questioned their parenting, despite having an older son whom she describes as “thriving.” Kristen in particular felt “responsible” for her son’s despondent state; she and her mother both suffered from depression, and her aunt committed suicide some years ago.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh god, I gave this to him because I’ve gone through it, my mom went through it, my aunt, that entire side [of my family]’” she says. “I do blame myself for that.”
Keller says she tortured herself, questioning every choice she’d made with her youngest son, including her own actions during pregnancy.
“Actually, my mom died while I was pregnant with him,” she says. “Did everything I was going through [affect him]? I drank caffeine when I was pregnant with him and I didn’t with my first son. I was having all these headaches after my mom died and the doctor [told me to] drink caffeine because I couldn’t take any medicine.
“You feel hopeless. What goes through your mind is, ‘Did I do something to make him feel this way?’” she says. “My husband and I felt like we were failing him. We’d go see experts and they’d say, ‘You’re doing everything we’d recommend you do.’ So honestly it’s just feeling heartbroken, helpless, exhausted all the time. Every ounce of energy I had he would take, just mentally and physically.”
She quit her full-time job as a public relations consultant, and eventually the Kellers made the decision to send their son to a residential program.
Once their son was settled into the program, Keller found herself with time on her hands. She could have gone back to work, but found the thought of re-entering the world of high-tech public relations bleak. With a marketable skillset, Keller began searching the nonprofit world for work to fill her days and her soul. That’s when she stumbled upon Second Wind Fund (SWF).
The concept for SWF emerged in 2002 after four students at a Jefferson County school took their own lives in the course of a single school year. A community-led walk/run event to support the school in the immediate aftermath gave rise to the idea of a longstanding program to support young people who may be having suicidal thoughts.
The concept spread and SWF now operates in 21 counties in Colorado, including Boulder. Each SWF affiliate group works to decrease the incidence of suicide in children and youth by removing the financial and social barriers to treatment.
As of mid-September, Second Wind Fund of Boulder County debuted a new online referral system to help youths who may be suicidal get into counseling faster.
While suicide may seem like an adult concept, the numbers tell a different story. In Colorado, suicide is the leading cause of death for ages 10-14, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey adds even more sobering statistics to the mix: around 14 percent of Boulder Valley high school students and 16 percent of middle school students reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year.
Another 12 percent of high schoolers and 14 percent of middle schoolers reported making a suicide plan. Of those students, 6 percent of high school and 4 percent of middle school students reported actually attempting suicide.
Over cups of tea and coffee, Kristen Keller and Faye Peterson, executive director of SWF of Boulder County, discuss the organization and the new online referral system. When Keller came across SWF after her son’s struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, she was excited to learn that the Boulder chapter was in need of someone with PR skills. She’s now on the Boulder County affiliate’s board of directors.
Peterson was approached by Boulder community members to head up a Boulder County affiliate of SWF in 2009 after a similar organization, Compass House, had to shutter its doors. She’s volunteered as the executive director of SWF of Boulder County ever since.
SWF of Boulder County works with Boulder Valley and St. Vrain school districts.
Peterson’s job has always been to connect young folks who have been identified as possibly having suicidal thoughts with counselors.
“I had two referrals this morning, which is a lot,” Peterson says. The process usually looks like this: A student ends up in the office of a school counselor because the child has talked about ending their life, perhaps directly to the counselor or even to a friend or family member. After a quick suicide assessment, the school counselor calls Peterson, who gathers some information about the child: if they are insured or underinsured, if their parents are involved. If the student qualifies, Peterson provides the counselor with a referral number.
But Peterson has a private practice as a psychologist as well, meaning sometimes school counselors can’t get in touch with her immediately. She began to envision an online referral system that could allow counselors to get at-risk students set up with appointments immediately.
Referrals can only be made by qualified sources, such as counselors and others trained in mental health evaluation.
Students receive eight sessions through SWF at no cost. An additional four free sessions can be obtained for students who still need more time with a counselor.
Both Keller and Peterson talk about the complicated reasons why a child might express thoughts that many consider “adult:” There is the genetic component, Peterson says, or the pressures of standardized testing, Keller adds.
The biggest risk factor, Peterson says, is a lack of access to mental healthcare because of financial resources.
Citizenship status can also create barriers.
“This 8-year-old [we currently serve], his parents were undocumented. We don’t ask for papers. Every child is served,” Peterson says. “His parents were monolingual. He was their translator. The pressure of maybe not having language skills and being in the classroom, the pressure of needing to be reading by 4 — it’s a lot on a child.
“The pressure, it’s like a powder keg,” she says. “In middle school and high school, children are already thinking, ‘I have to get into the best college I can.’ What about those kids who just want to be in their community and get jobs? The youth struggle: ‘Where do I fit in? How do I find out what I’m good at?’”
Emily Sellergren began working with SWF of Boulder County last year as a counselor. She agrees with Peterson and Keller that the underlying reasons for a student to express suicidal thoughts are complicated and interwoven, often involving struggles at home and demands to perform well academically. Social media and cell phones can also create anxieties for students.
Sellergren has spent most of her career as a psychotherapist working with adolescents. She worked with students in Littleton after the Columbine shooting in 1999.
“I worked with a sixth grader last year who said some things that were really concerning to her friends and counselors,” Sellergren says. “Once I started working with her, she wasn’t suicidal, she just needed more support. She needed people to see her, to help her find out who she was. I feel like sometimes kids say those things and you catch it and work with them and they improve a lot. Other times kids truly are suicidal, but it’s the same issues. You talk to them, you connect with them, find out who they are and what’s important to them.”
Sellergren says the most important thing a parent can do is connect with their child.
“Checking in, having one on one time,” she says. “‘How is school going? How are you feeling about your grades and your friends?’ I think families can get busy day to day and aren’t able to sit down with our children and really talk. Even if you can just be in the car with your kid, turn off the radio and put the iPhone down and have a real conversation about how things are, sit down as a family and have dinner together and check in, it makes a huge difference.”
For more information about Second Wind Fund, visit swfbc.org. To learn more about suicide prevention and find support groups, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at afsp.org.