Crow Wing Energized: Prevention of suicide begins at birth
Suicide prevention is fundamentally about relationships. As a student of brain science and child and adult development, I contend that suicide prevention begins at birth, and continues throughout the lifespan.
Suicide is an all too common phenomenon that has many harmful ripple effects for family members and loved ones.
However, as the Minnesota Department of Health’s document on Community Partners Preventing Suicide states, “Suicide is preventable. We can decrease the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors by increasing access to quality behavioral healthcare (and) building meaningful relationships. ...”
The health department document also states, “Suicide is rarely random or inevitable. There is not one single path that leads to suicide. Suicide death is complicated and is often the result of a combination of factors experienced across a lifetime like childhood trauma, serious mental illness, substance abuse, painful loss, exposure to violence, social isolation and loneliness, and easy access to lethal means.”
Suicide prevention is fundamentally about relationships. As a student of brain science and child and adult development, I contend that suicide prevention begins at birth, and continues throughout the lifespan. Suicide prevention starts when people have the knowledge and skills regarding the development of healthy relationships. This article will focus on suicide prevention strategies focused on the earliest time of a child’s life.
When a baby is born, they are totally dependent on their mothers, fathers, and other caregivers for survival. If a baby needs something, it cries. When the adult present tunes into what the baby needs and provides it, the baby’s brain gets wired to trust that someone will take care of them. This process is called attunement, builds what is called secure attachment, and also builds the psychological concept of trust in the infant’s brain. The ability, or inability, to trust is at the core of all relationships.
Another dimension of infant/adult interaction that builds brains is called serve and return, as in a tennis game. In this interaction the baby might coo, gurgle, or make any kind of sound or physical gesture. When the adult present mimics the baby’s vocalization or movement, the baby learns that adults are tuned into her or him, and the baby learns it is loved and valued. Being valued by caring and competent adults is key to healthy brain and relationship development.
The serve and return response evolves as the baby gets older. Now the adult can initiate a sound or movement and the baby will mimic the adult. This back and forth interaction builds neural pathways in the brain that lead to the feeling of being loved and belonging.
Another relationship building block beginning to be formed during infancy is self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to manage and soothe one’s emotional state so that normal human emotions such as sadness don’t turn into depression, or anger doesn’t present itself as violence. Infants begin to learn self-regulation by being co-regulated by adults. Picking up a distressed baby, holding and cuddling it, and saying or singing soothing words is how babies learn that their distress can ease and go away. The old idea that you shouldn’t attend to crying babies because you might spoil them is completely false. Adults who co-regulate infants prepare them for the important self-regulation skills that will evolve and serve them well as older children and adults.
A final key suicide prevention skill is the development of empathy. Empathy is different from sympathy, where one person feels bad about another person’s emotional state. Empathy is the ability to feel another person’s emotions along with them, to stand in their shoes and care. Empathy leads to compassion, which is the desire to help and do something when another person is in distress.
Empathy and compassion develop in humans early through the aforementioned processes of attunement, secure attachment, serve and return experiences, and co- and self-regulation. When practiced in adult-infant interactions, not only do the infants benefit, but the adults do as well.
Suicide prevention is about promoting mental health. The World Health Organization defines mental health as, "A state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community." Mental health begins in infancy and continues to develop across the lifespan. Let’s do more with promoting early mental health and continue building it as children grow towards adulthood.
For additional information on how to promote early mental health, contact your local Early Childhood Family Education Program.