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Adolescent suicides? 

Hi Everyone,

 I have a very intense topic I need to bring up with the group.

I am a youth counsellor at a youth shelter in downtown Calgary for adolescent's with status through intervention services. We focus on transitioning our youth back into society as smoothly and positively as possible. One of our youth in particular had just moved into a YTA placement at the beginning of September. He was so proud of himself. We were so proud of everything he had accomplished. In the middle of last week, we received a call from one of our youth stating that he had just found our former resident in his (the former youth's YTA apartment), deceased. He had taken his own life a matter of hours before our current resident - his best friend - went and found him.

He was such a bright person. As horrible and as awful as it sounds to admit it, he was one of my very favourite adolescents to work with. He had the ability to engrave his name and story on your heart within hours. He was so intelligent, smart, and humorous. He was not the stereotypical "suicide candidate."

I've been going through the different threads looking for insight on how I should be reacting, but I have not been successful. I feel guilty for not following my gut instincts sooner. I had a feeling that he was struggling and that he was in a dark headspace, but I did not follow up on these feelings. I figured he was resilient and that I was just being paranoid. Now I cannot help but think that MAYBE if I would have visited him and been a support, perhaps he would still be here.

My question to the group is, how do you personally deal with such a tragic loss? Any insight would help.

Lyndsay MacDonald,
Calgary, Alberta
...

I think you have to follow your head and your heart. Having been through a number of very similar situations both professionally and personally I have learned things that have helped me deal with similar tragedies.

It is natural to ask questions about our role. This is both human but also what we are trained to do as practitioners who reflect on their work and their actions. The question about could you have done anything different and did you know more than you gave yourself credit for at the time are questions I have had in similar situations and seen with others.

The answers I found had to with how young people and others present when they are contemplating suicide. In many cases a person acts in ways that are counterintuitive and don't fit with what they do later on. He appeared to be okay and getting on with things. This is the one piece of information I have learned from. It is often when a young person is "okay" that they actually have gathered the strength to follow through with a plan that they have not shared with others.

It is too easy when we look backwards that we think we have missed something because the tragic events are so powerful. It is a personal connection to events that may not actually fit with the facts.

Regardless of the questions and a more clinical understanding of such tragedies there is simply the fact that this is a loss. You need to give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling. Allow yourself the full gamut of feelings. There will be many, they can be intense and you need the time to address and express them. Give yourself permission.

Also find some people who you can share the feelings with. I would also suggest finding someone wise.....like a supervisor or someone you see as a mentor who can help you integrate this into your own practice.

Events like this are traumatic and you want to be able to move through this so that it does not stay with you as simply this tragic event. This is the type of work we do. Often it is understood and invisible. But the fact that we deal with the most vulnerable where the issues for some are life and death is all too real needs to be acknowledged and given the time and space required to do justice to the impacts on us as workers.

My thoughts.....
Rick Kelly
...

Hi Lindsey,

Firstly I want to say I'm so sorry about your loss. It is so tough to see someone you worked with and so full of life dead, especially by suicide. ‎I was a front line Child and Youth Care worker for many years and unfortunately I worked with several youths that took their own lives. Even back then the staff couldn't help but say to themselves "we should of seen this coming " and "maybe we could of done more". I think these are natural responses when we lose someone close to us by suicide.

For the last 7 years I have been a Program Manager for Victim Service's in a small city in Alberta ‎. We work in coordination with the RCMP. Over the years I have assisted the RCMP members to give Notice of Kin to family members that have died by a sudden death, this includes suicide. Now through my experience and through my training one valuable thing I learned is that someone that has or is going to commit suicide has had this thought in their minds for a very long time - " it's not anyone's fault ". Unless they talk about it and seek mental health assistance, they ultimately could follow through on their plan (that they may have planned out for some time) . This is why I think Clara Hughes "let's talk about it " and don't suffer in silence campaigns are so important. Education and awareness is the key to help assist our suicidal youth. Hope this helps.

Dave
...

Hi Lyndsay

I think you can best honor this young man by learning from him and promising yourself that you will “trust your gut” and be willing to have courageous conversations with youth you are concerned about, without worrying about how they, or others, will respond. I’m sorry for your loss. Be gentle with yourself: none of us does everything right.

Lorraine Fox
...

Lyndsay,

My heart really goes out to you as you deal with this loss. Losing someone we've cared for as YCWs is sadly more common than anyone would like but that fact doesn't, and shouldn't make it any easier.

I think it's a very natural and understandable reaction to feel like you should have done more to help him. I can imagine you're going through every interaction to see if you could have done or said something that would have saved him. There isn't a satisfying answer. Based on what you described, it sounds like he did know who he could turn to, he knew where his support was, and he knew who would have cared enough to intervene. Depression is dark and tells us many lies. For whatever reason, he made a choice (knowing the options) that he felt was right for him at the time, and now you are left to grieve and wonder.

How do we deal with loss? Take time to grieve in whatever way feels right. Cry, write, paint, blog, talk, climb a big hill. Find ways to remember him that expresses joy and happiness and how much he meant to people. Grieve with his friends who are also wading through this tragedy. I personally am a big fan of therapy. Find a therapist who can help you work through this and while it will always be painful, it doesn't always have to be a burden that holds you back.

Dealing with loss is very personal, obviously, and everyone does it differently so don't be afraid to be selfish with your need to heal and move through the grief.

That's about all I got for advice! I'll be rooting for you :)

Evelyn Downie
YCW
Dartmouth, NS
...

Hello Lindsay,

I am sorry to hear that you have experienced such a terrible event so early on in your career. It must be tough for you to have lost a teenage boy whom you have worked closely with and one who you were fond of. It is always such a tragedy when young people take their own lives.

You do need to realise that this event is not your fault. The organisation that you are work for should be providing counselling to all staff members (and students) impacted by this young man's suicide. If you are not receiving counselling from your workplace, it is important to find someone you can talk to about what happened (preferably someone with a professional background in some sort of counselling).

Time will pass and this will hurt less; don't blame yourself. Working as a CYW puts you at risk for experiencing things like this; it is unfortunately a hazard of the job, however, many CYW's work for years without experiencing this, not because of anything they have or haven't done, whilst other CYW's (some of the best out there) experience this more than once during their careers. It is simply something that may or may not happen and is not at all a reflection on what you may or may not have done.

It is evident from your email that you are a dedicated and passionate CYW and that you are doing your best.

Regards,
Delphine Amer
...

Hi Lyndsay,

You are doing just the right thing in thinking through how you are responding to what happened. That kind of loss hurts and stops us in our tracks.

My insight (since you are asking) is: Don’t put pressure on yourself to make sense of what happened too quickly. Of course there are the “maybes” and second guessing ourselves. Those didn’t happen, so focus on what did - you likely contributed to him having some better days for the ones he had. The rest is simply out of our control.

Check out my article in this month’s (September 2014) CYC-Online - I share about the loss of a good friend in a similarly tragic way. One of the great things about the CYC field is that you don’t have to be alone in your own healing.

And - whatever grace, talent, and strengths you learned or observed in this young person - you now get to pass that along in some way to the rest of the world. Pausing and sharing in your loss of someone special.

James Freeman
...

My thoughts and prayers go out to you, the staff and the family members of that child and the many others who feel their life is not worth living any longer. I agree with the others who have replied so I will end this with a thank you to you for getting up every day to go to work.

You have many more to wake up for and I praise you for doing just that.

Donna Wilson
...

Hi there,

Just late to respond about the tragic loss. We can’t tag any children as a favorite. All these kids having struggled in their lives need us in any situation. That is the best moment to be grounded in our work place. Don't feel guilty. Just we need to pay more attention to our gut feelings, especially for these kids in a dark headspace.

Rita Moraga
...

Hi,

A brief defense of Lyndsay in reference to her comment about a "favorite" child: Rita is right that we have to be careful to care for everyone, and it is terrible to visit a program where staff are part of the problem.

Still, having favorites is unavoidable. To ask us not to risks some self-deception. It is common - and acceptable - to have a favorite child, and several writers over the decades discussed this, including Fritz Redl and Zvi Levy. It is a credit to some youth workers that their favorites are often (not always) the kids no one else wants or likes. It might be a cultivated ability.

By the way, Levy devoted a lot of time to thinking about how to organize his large residential program so that kids could spend as much time with THEIR favorites rather than those staff who were assigned to them.

Best wishes,
Doug Magnuson
BC, Canada
...

Hi Lyndsay,

For me it's okay to feel better connections with some people we work with over others. That is just natural. The trick is to work in such a way that it is not necessarily easy to know who might be your more kindred connections.

The loss of young people is truly tragic - particularly when we have had the privilege to have shared conversations and had insight into a young person’s history. As with any loss I think we question if we could have done or said more and reacted differently. It is important that you protect yourself so that you are strong enough to be able to tackle the issues and work with the emotions that the job brings. I do not minimise the sense of loss that you feel for this young man but life can be so unfair, and there are some events that, much as we do try, we cannot be in control of. I am sure that the time you took with him, the appreciation that you had for him as a funny and smart guy, was appreciated by him. You gave as much as you could in your capacity as a worker. It's really hard to read the signals as they can often be confused and unclear.

Please don't blame yourself.
Kind Regards,
Stuart Provan
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