Local mental health expert shares tips for talking to children about suicide, depression

Posted at 11:03 PM, Aug 12, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-12 23:32:33-04

ALLEGAN COUNTY, Mich. -- After the death of Hollywood comedy legend Robin Williams, conversations are opening up with many parents and their kids about suicide and depression.

Experts in Allegan County said that families should use this tragedy as an opportunity to open up a dialogue that might not otherwise be discussed.

"Reassure them that you are there for them. If they ever have questions like that or problems that they need to come to you as a parent," said Mary Shuman.

Mary Shuman with Allegan County Community Mental Health said that the amount of information you should disclose to your child about suicide depends on your child's age.

Shuman said that it is very important to ask your child how they feel.

"Why do you think that is? Why do you think a person would do that? I just want you to know that sometimes people are really hurting inside and you can't see it maybe on the outside, but they are," said Shuman.

Shuman said that it's an opportunity to inform children of the resources out there if they feel upset, even if that means simply encouraging the child to disclose their feelings to their parents.

"Say something like, that man must have been really sad. If you are really sad, I hope that you'll tell me about it so we can talk about it. A lot of people get sad, but they don't do that," said Shuman.

Shuman said that children often feel guilty following a tragedy they don't understand, and reassuring them is important.

"It's not anyone's fault that it happened either. Nobody did anything to make that person do it because I think that parents get really worried that if Uncle Dave kills himself, what happens often times little children think they did something wrong," said Shuman.

Shuman also said that it is healthy for your child to be upset or sad following the news of Robin Williams taking his own life, adding it would be more worrisome if they didn't show much emotion at all.

Kristie Compagner with Allegan County Community Mental Health said that the issue of suicide in west Michigan is a huge problem,  with many not knowing where to turn for help.

"It happens all the time. We get calls all the time from people who are in that state of emotional distress," said Compagner.

Compagner said that typically before someone takes their own life, there is a pattern of depression warning signs that may have been overlooked.

"What's really difficult for a lot of people is that we are afraid of asking some of the hard questions. Afraid to see and ask an individual if they are hurting, if they have thoughts of killing themselves," said Compagner.

Compagner also said that warning signs someone might be thinking about suicide include isolating themselves from those around them, and a change in appetite, whether it's eating significantly more or less, and also the same with sleeping patterns.

"When a person says I can't do this anymore. I see no hope for my future. I feel nothing. I feel nothing. Those are people that you really need to worry about," said Compagner.

With the suicide of Williams, Compagner said that many might wonder if all the attention will bring on ‘copy-cats,’ but said that one wouldn’t simply see something and harm themselves if they didn’t already have those type of thoughts.

"There is always that concern that if you put things out, it will kind of generate this interest in people. Honestly in my experience if a person wants to die, they are going to try and kill themselves," said Compagner.

If you live in Allegan County, you can reach their crisis hotline  at 1-888-354-0596 or (269) 673-0202.

There is also a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).