Our Kids Are In Trouble: A New Approach to Youth Suicide Prevention at WellPower

Note: The following post discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs 24/7 immediate support, call 1-844-493-TALK (8255), text TALK to 38255 or visit the Walk-In Center at 4353 E. Colfax Ave. in Denver. For more information and additional locations: coloradocrisisservices.org. For support outside Colorado, call 988.

Our kids are in trouble. Across the country, suicide among young people is continuing to rise. Youth of color and in the LGBTQ+ community are at particularly high risk. In the decade leading up to 2021, 13% of high school girls and 20% of LGBTQ+ teens attempted suicide; the rate for American Indian/Alaska Native youth was three times higher than white young people

Suicide is a top cause of death among youth in Colorado, a state that has one of the highest overall suicide rates in the country.

Youth Suicide Prevention at WellPower

WellPower takes a comprehensive approach to youth suicide prevention, including ongoing clinical services; programs like Voz y Corazón, Emerson St for Teens & Young Adults and STAY SAFE Partnership; and connection to external programs like I Matter.

As the youth suicide crisis intensified, WellPower saw the need for additional offerings to serve children, teens and young adults in even more ways. Building on a well-established approach that has been gaining visibility in adult service circles, WellPower recently added a brand-new role: youth peer support specialist.

What is peer support? Mental health professionals have advanced training and experience in helping people work through behavioral health challenges. Peer support specialists bring their lived experience with mental health to their interactions with the people they serve. Their ability to speak from the perspective of their own journey allows them to connect in a different way from traditional clinicians.

Combating Youth Isolation through Peer Support

Lindsay Hampton is the youth peer support specialist on WellPower’s Zero Suicide team, which provides specialized support for people experiencing acute suicidality. Hampton, who works with youth in WellPower’s Child and Family services team, draws on her own lived experience to connect with young people on a deeper level.

“A lot of our one-on-one meetings are just hanging out – talking about their interests and goals, talking about their favorite TV shows,” said Hampton. “It sounds kind of silly, but it provides huge benefits because a lot of these kids feel isolated, and having someone who’s a little older who can understand them is really helpful.”

Because isolation is itself one of the primary contributors to suicidality, particularly among young people, much of the value in the peer role is in establishing a nonjudgmental connection with youth who might feel disconnected from people in other areas of their lives.

“There are things they’re nervous to tell their parents, friends, even therapists – they’re worried about judgment about things they’ve done or things they feel,” Hampton explained. “So letting them know, you’re not going to scare me off, you can say whatever you need to say, and I’m still going to show up for you” can mean the world to them.

“Someone recently told me that meeting with me feels like meeting with their big sister,” she recalled with a smile.

The Impact of Social Media on Youth Well-Being

We know that social media can be harmful in some cases and helpful in others for young people’s mental health. How does this factor into what we’re seeing with suicidality right now?

“It really is a double-sided coin, because while it decreases in-person connection, it can also increase someone’s social circle,” Hampton explained. “A lot of kids don’t have a lot of close in-person friends – a lot of them connect on social media,” which can be a very important source of support.

These virtual connections aren’t always equal substitutes for the in-person variety, however. “A lot of that connection is a hollow connection, in a sense – while it can be impactful it isn’t as impactful as those in-person friends and connections.”

Hampton points to how social media can impact young people’s self-esteem. “There’s also a need for validation, and I think that can come from social media, and it can also be damaging. The second you don’t get those likes, those comments, it can really crush their self-esteem. It’s also like a substance – you get that rush, but can come crashing down quickly.”

Social media also introduces a lot of anonymity, which makes it far easier to say negative things to peers with all of the impact but fewer of the consequences of in-person interactions.

Watching for Warning Signs

From social media and cyberbullying to school shootings and pandemics, being a teenager today comes with challenges previous generations haven’t had to deal with, at least not in the same way. This presents a whole new set of signs parents, caregivers, friends and other family members need to be aware of as they care for the young people in their lives.

“I think it really comes down to keeping an eye on their moods. With teenagers there’s that mindset that they can be unpredictable,” which can make it difficult to tell when something is wrong. But, as Hampton explained, “there really is a shift – you can see them isolating, lashing out, start being late to school when they’ve never been late before.” They also might lose interest in the activities they used to enjoy, whether that’s after school clubs, sports, hobbies or spending time with friends.

Support Young People by Being Present

If we do notice a change in how a young person is feeling, there are things we can do to support them.

“A lot of our kids are scared – for their physical safety and their emotional safety. With the rise of school shootings, a lot of kids are terrified for their well-being and that can come with suicidality,” explained Hampton. “Sitting down with them to tell them it’s a really scary time, and you have people here to support you” can make a big difference. Try acknowledging and validating what they’re feeling – “they’re really scared and they have a right to be.”

Parenting teenagers can be especially challenging because of the idiosyncrasies of this time of life. With rapid changes in moods and a drive for greater independence, it’s common for parents and caregivers to reach out only to have the teen push away.

Hampton offers encouragement not to give up. “Just letting them know you’re there and here for them, they might not always reciprocate, but it means a lot and there might be that time when they do feel like reaching out.”

Thoughts of Suicide Are Not a Fault

As a parent, caregiver, family member or friend, a suicide attempt by a young person can be world-shaking, terrifying and traumatic. As we navigate the time following the event, it’s also important not to react with anger or punitive measures toward the young person who is struggling, even though that might be our first reaction.

Hampton acknowledges that responding with punishment is a common default way for parents to try to keep their children safe and discourage dangerous behavior. “I get it, and it’s also not the best way of handling it. [Suicide ideation] is not a shortcoming, it’s not a fault in your kid – it’s their way of saying ‘I’m hurting, I need some form of support.’ It’s a cry for help – it’s a ‘something is missing,’” she explained. “So as you sit down with them, ask ‘What can I do to support you, how can we prevent this from happening again?’”

Talking About Suicide Does Not Make It More Likely to Happen

Rule Number One of supporting people who may be experiencing suicidal thinking: don’t be afraid to talk about it.

“A lot of mindsets we see is ‘If I talk about suicide, it’s going to make them want to do it,’” said Hampton. “We’re trying to get rid of that mindset. Talking about it is not going to make them do it; talking about it is going to make them feel heard.”

As for how to approach the topic, Hampton recommends small moments of connection. Rather than one big sit-down, try weaving it into everyday touchpoints. “When they come home from school and throw their backpack down and go to their room – that can be a good chance to ask, ‘Hey, what happened today? What do you need?’”

Small moments can remind young people that we’re consistently present and here to support them, whenever they’re ready.

How to Get Help

If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, call 911.

For 24/7/365 support with suicide prevention or anything related to mental health or substance use in Colorado:

For immediate support outside of Colorado, call 988 to be connected to local support based on your area code.

A few organizations that focus on LGBTQ+ youth include:

Finally, if you know an adult who could use some support, WellPower’s TherapyDirect program offers immediate connection to a professional counselor, no appointment or insurance needed.