Childhood Suicide Warning Signs and Seeking Help In Our Muslim Communities (Part Two)
Posted on May 02, 2019
By Nargis Rahman
TRIGGER WARNING - This post discusses sensitive topics pertaining to childhood suicide and bullying but contains NO graphic imagery.
Editorial note: With the rise of Muslim children committing suicide in communities across the U.S. and Canada this past year, writer Nargis Rahman is diving deep into exploring the roots of childhood suicide, warning signs to look for and ways we can help in this two-part series. Part One explores the rise of childhood suicide and what to look out for. Part Two covers the causes of childhood suicide and depression and offer more resources for Muslim families and our communities at large.
Many Muslim youth are dealing with bullying, domestic violence or just trying to fit in while maintaining multiple parts of their identity - from culture to faith to being “American” enough. Some of these battles can lead to feelings of hopelessness, anxiety or depression and even suicide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported one person dies every 12 minutes from suicide.
Jamal Ahmed* is one of those kids who shared his story with me. Jamal grew up in a home of emotional and physical abuse by his father. He is now bullied by his older brother Rizwan*. Rizwan calls Jamal names, pushes him around, belittles him and blocks his way when he tries to walk away. This has led to Jamal feeling lonely and depressed.
Because of the taboo of discussing domestic violence in the community and lack of support from family and religious and authoritative figures in the past, Jamal feels like he cannot talk about his feelings to anyone. When he tries to reach out to his parents about his brother abusing him, he is brushed aside, ignored and/or accused of upsetting his brother. He wonders if people will care about him, “when he is gone,” otherwise known as suicidal thoughts.
A new study released just this week shows that suicide attempts among children in America has increased dramatically. Researchers found more than 1.6 million cases of suicide attempts through poisoning by 10-to-24-year-olds occurred from 2000-2018, and more than 70 percent of these were made by young women.
That suicide and suicidal thoughts are on the rise among children and teens is something we know - the whys of this, though, are continue to be researched. Most of the time the warning signs are right under our noses. These signs and childhood traumas can furthermore lead to mental and physical health problems as well as thoughts of suicide well into adulthood, as examined in the Adverse Childhood Experience study.
Becoming familiar with signs of suicide - which are often similar to signs of depression - is one of the first things parents can do to look out for their children. Working together with school administration, a family doctor and a psychologist or psychiatrist to get the child back on track to feeling healthier in mind, body and spirit is crucial if you see any warning signs.
What causes your child or teenager to feel depressed? While there are many reasons your child can feel depressed, how they feel in their social settings plays an important role. Consider these other causations:
1. Major life changes: A recent change in schools, loss of a loved one, the divorce of parents - this can all lead to depression. Children may feel like they have no one to talk to or relate to. Sometimes in cultural settings, children may be ridiculed if their parents are divorced or dismissed if they reach out about other struggles they are having.
2. Physical symptoms: They may display signs such as slowing down, disconnection, irritability, sleeplessness or too much sleep, complaints of aches and pains or difficulty breathing due to anxiety. These are symptoms should be checked by a pediatrician to rule out other possibilities and further diagnosis if necessary. A pediatrician may be able to flag depression and/or suicidal behaviors and inform a parent to get help from a psychologist.
Another symptom to watch for is cutting, a form of self harm, often done by girls more than boys, which inflicts pain on oneself. Dr. Saba Maroof, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, says sometimes this is done on the hands (where a child may wear long sleeves to cover it), but also in less obvious places like their thighs. Cutting is not always a sign that a child is suicidal, however it is one of the risk factors that may lead to it.
According to Stanford Children’s Health, the CDC says boys are four times more likely to commit suicide than girls. The numbers increase when there is a firearm available.
3. Cyber bullying: Bullying is on the rise but so is awareness, says Dr. Maroof. She says teachers, administrations, mental health professionals and parents are talking about mental health and bullying more. The focus is shifting to teaching empathy and stopping bullying, she says, adding that there are more challenges with 24/7 access to cyber bullying.
Dr. Eric Ayers, the program director for Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Wayne State University/Detroit Medical Center, says children are opting out of face-to-face interactions and increasing communication on social media. “This leads to less accountability more bullying and ineffective development of problem solving skill sets that relate to personable encounters. This then over a period of time leads to self doubt questions and could lead to adverse behavior and ideation.”
3. Hostile political climate against Muslims: Politicians increasingly are spewing anti-Muslim rhetoric, as seen in the last presidential elections and followed by the Muslim Ban. Many youth may struggle with their Muslim identity. According to a poll in 2017 by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, “The majority (60 percent) of American Muslims report some level of religious discrimination over the past year, significantly surpassing the rates reported by all other groups.”
This included bullying, sometimes by their own teachers. Children need safe spaces to discuss how they feel about their identity without being ridiculed. Your local mosque youth group or even just at home may be that safe place to have these discussions.
4. Domestic violence at home: Children may face neglect or abuse at home. Often they think they are at fault for the abuse. The Childhood Domestic Violence Association estimates one billion children are affected globally. This can lead to children feeling hopeless, isolated, sad, lonely, resentful, unloved and unable to access help. Read my previous stories about domestic violence here in Part One and Part Two.
Recently Jamal shared his story of being bullied at home by his brother, “not being able to breathe” and feeling depressed on social media. His friend reached out to support him. Jamal’s school counselor was made aware of his social media posts, and she intervened by speaking to Jamal about his feelings. Due to his lack of support at home, Jamal’s counselor encouraged him to build healthy coping skills and stay busy in his safe space at school. The counselor sent a letter home to encourage his parents to take him to counseling for anxiety.
Jamal told me, “When you get bullied, sometimes you feel like you don’t belong anywhere, and you kind of lose hope. The bullies end up getting into your head but you have to fight it and stand up for yourself.”
These issues are complicated in the cases of domestic violence, when a child may face further abuse for reporting the abuse. Jamal said he has trouble sleeping at night due to fear of being attacked. He said his physical symptoms include shaking, being unable to breathe and feeling like his parents won’t do anything about it “until it’s too late.”
Adults Must Lead by Modeling Caring
Children look to adults to set an example and lead in caring. Providing a nurturing environment to seek assistance is vital. Children with undiagnosed depression can have other long-term effects in life, such as losing friends and family and potential academic or employment opportunities. They may also experiment with unhealthy coping methods, such as substance abuse.
In 2016, a 23-year-old Bangladeshi girl named Samiha Khan committed suicide in New York after previous attempts. She was sexually abused by her father since she was eight years old. Her father also emotionally abused her and taunted her, saying she was unwanted by others. Her friends wrote an article about her in Medium to bring her story to light.
A local Bangladeshi paper in New York, The Tikana, refused to acknowledge the circumstances that led to her death in her obituary. Due to the taboo in the South Asian community to seek justice for sexual crimes, her ordeal was brushed aside, and her death polarized the community’s youth from the elders. The youth saw this as an opportunity to talk about sexual abuse, however elders in the community believed the parents were the victims and did not think Samiha’s conservative father would do such a thing.
Stories like Samiha’s are often hushed and kept a secret. Sometimes people blame the victim, as commonly seen in cases of domestic violence. Rather than creating a climate of hatred and fear in your children, work toward being just and fair to them and maintaining trust and support.
How to Engage with Your Children.
Talk to your children and encourage empathy. Talking about suicide does not increase rates of suicide. Rather, children feel like they have a safe space to talk. Teach them to be articulate and reach out for help when they need it.
Dr. Maroof says parents should be the first line of defense for children by stepping in, listening, being a shoulder to lean on and helping their children identify healthy peer relationships. She also recommends limiting social media access and time from a young age.
“Encourage your child or teen to talk to you about their feelings, help them put words to their feelings and allow them to feel comfortable and safe to come to you with their problems. If you freak out when they approach you, they may not share their thoughts and feelings next time.”
1. Hold realistic expectations: Do not expect your children to think and behave like an adult. It’s the parents’ job to gently teach them right from wrong, and ultimately the child will look to role models and those around them to help them live their best lives. Be a good role model and a shoulder to lean on.
2. Teach your child to cope with stress: Healthy coping could be talking out their emotions with a trusted adult, such as a parent, older sibling, cousin or a professional therapist. Kids can also engage in positive activities to let their feelings out such as drawing, painting, writing and exercising. They can also join local youth groups that provide a healthy space to grow.
3. Limit social media: While children may not always open up to parents, parents still have a responsibility to set healthy boundaries for their children (from a young age) to enable healthy behavior. This includes limiting time for social media, and paying attention to behavior changes through social media posts.
4. Make dua for them: A parent’s dua is one of those that is accepted right away by Allah (S). Utilize this to the max by asking Allah (S) for protection from harm. A parent’s dua goes a long way. Parents can recite the three Quls for them and Ayatul Qursi. Establish a routine for your children for them to recite these surahs and duas. Here are also four daily duas that can be recited for protection for children from evil. And, more duas can be found on Riyad Us-Saliheen, on the Muslim Pro app and many others places.
Consider Professional Therapy
There may come a time when seeking professional help is the best thing you can do for your child. Whether your child needs individual, family or group therapy, Dr. Maroof says advocating for your child and reaching out to school administrators and a psychologist are all ways to intervene for a suicidal or depressed child. Dr. Maroof says, “The best way to support your child, especially your teen, when they are depressed is to normalize getting help!”
Here is what Dr. Maroof recommends you look for in a therapist:
1. A qualified therapist: An ideal candidate who works with kids may have a masters in social work or counseling or might be a psychologist with a Ph. D. Other options for help include a counselor, psychologist and/or psychiatrist. Consider these definitions to choose what works best for your family.
- A counselor/therapist can have a wide variety of degrees and therapy focus. They may have a masters in social work, counseling, marriage or family therapy. Many may be social workers, who work at schools and are the children’s first exposure to getting professional mental health care.
- Psychologists may have either a Ph. D., with more of a research and academic background, or Psy. D. Both may see patients clinically. Some are able to prescribe medicine, but it varies from state to state.
- A psychiatrist is a physician who went to medical school, trained in psychiatry, (the study of mental illnesses and emotional disturbances) and has worked in a hospital. They provide therapy and can prescribe and manage patients who require medication. Child psychiatrists require two years of extra training.
2. Find the right fit: The first therapist you take your child to may not be the right fit for them. If the relationship doesn’t feel right, find another therapist. Stick to someone your child opens up to. The therapist will meet individually with the child, then together with the parents, depending on how you set up the therapy. If you’re child is already seeing a therapist and is suicidal, inform the therapist of that.
3. Include medical support: A child should also see a pediatrician or maybe even a psychiatrist who can prescribe medicines as needed. Dr. Maroof says all entities should work together for maximum effort. A psychologist will meet regularly with the child to examine negative thoughts and build coping skills while a psychiatrist will check in every few weeks to a few months to determine whether medication is necessary for intervention.
“Ideally, both therapist and psychiatrist should consult with one another. The psychiatrist may or may not prescribe medication depending on severity. He or she may elect to closely monitor your child.” Dr. Maroof says she has seen teenagers be more open to medication and therapy rather than parents.
“As a parent, it is natural to have some anxiety about medication specifically, however it is important to talk to your doctor about the pros, cons, benefits and risks of starting medication.” She says usually an antidepressant is prescribed for those who have continuous suicidal thoughts and is adjusted to the child based on need.
- The Child Mind Institute provides parents, educators and professionals tools on mental health awareness, prevention and therapy catered toward youth.
- The American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry has more resources about warning signs and early intervention.
- The Family & Youth Institute put out a suicide prevention toolkit to increase awareness around depression and suicide. It includes infographics and phone numbers for further help.
- The Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 1-800-273-TALK (8255) - puts people in touch with local crisis centers.
- The Naseeha Youth Hotline is a Muslim youth-led crisis support helpline available to youth, seven days a week from 3-9 p.m. by calling 1-866-627-3342.
- The Crisis Text Line is another option for people who prefer to text for help. It was created by DoSomething.org, a youth-led platform for social justice. It is a volunteer-led 24/7 free service. Text “HOME” to 741741 for crisis assistance.
- The Khalil Center provides mental health support for Muslim youth and promotes psychological and spiritual wellness. They also have a helpline, 855-543-5752, which you can call during allocated hours.
Muslim youth must be supported by the mental health community, their families, friends, teachers and administration. Our children are not exempt from feelings of hopeless and depression, and the sooner we realize this and that there is no shame in this, the better it will be for our Muslim communities and our youth.
*Names were changed to protect the identity of youth.
Nargis Hakim Rahman is a Bangladeshi American Muslim writer and a mother of three kids. Nargis graduated from Wayne State University with a Bachelor’s degree in journalism, and a psychology minor. Nargis is passionate about community journalism in the Greater Detroit area. She hopes to give American Muslims and minorities a voice in the press. Nargis is a fellow for the Feet in 2 Worlds Fellowship/WDET 101.9 FM. She writes for The Muslim Observer, Brown Girl Magazine and Metro Detroit Mommy. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.