This article appears in the 2017 October Family magazine.

A dangerous social media game called the Blue Whale suicide challenge may be putting vulnerable youngsters at risk.

Believed to be linked to teen suicides in Russia, central Asia, Europe and South America, the sick challenge is being blamed for leading a 16-year-old girl near Atlanta to take her own life. The Blue Whale Challenge “appears to be an online game and/or app where people are asked to engage in 50 self-harm challenges that culminate with telling the person to kill themselves,” said Penn Medicine psychology expert Thea Gallagher, clinic coordinator at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Parents should know that suicide can affect everyone. Parents should know also that kids can be influenced by peer pressure and may not be aware of the long-term consequences and ramifications of their actions,” Gallagher said.

Youth suicide rates are rising, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that suicide is the third-leading cause of death among Americans age 10 to 14 and the second among ages 15 to 34. Plus, the number of children and adolescents admitted to children’s hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled during the last decade, according to research from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Start the conversation

Suicide is a sensitive topic and often one parents are nervous to discuss.

“It can be uncomfortable and scary and can make many of us feel out of our comfort zone,” Gallagher said. “The point is that social support and connection are key factors that buffer against suicide. We should strive to find more ways to communicate and connect, even when it is hard or uncomfortable,” she said.

Identify youth at risk

Pressures from school and the Internet are commonly referenced as factors that lead kids to try suicide. Identifying kids who may be “at risk is very important. This includes prior suicide attempts, misuse of drugs, family history of suicide or a mental disorder, chronic illness or disability, lack of access to mental health care,” Gallagher said.

Youths who stand out from the crowd face increased pressure.

“Stress from discrimination is a known risk factor for LGBTQ youth, and therefore making concerted efforts to reach LGBTQ youth is critical,” Gallagher said.

What to look for

The signs of suicide may include but are not limited to suicide notes or plans, making final arrangements, preoccupation with death and changes in behaviors, thoughts or feelings, Gallagher said.

Small groups, big conversations

One way to get people talking is to create small groups for children and adolescents to discuss difficult issues like mental health problems, family difficulties, interpersonal challenges and painful emotions.

“This is especially important as it is more likely that a child will report something to another child rather than an adult,” Gallagher said.

Creating connections

“Helping establish relationships between students and teachers and parents and children can also serve as a preventative measure with regard to suicidal ideation, violence, bullying, etc. Preventative measures should include promoting help-seeking, emotional well-being, and networks of social support and connectedness among children and their parents and teachers,” Gallagher said.

Kids who feel connected to others are less prone to feel isolated or exhibit negative behaviors, Gallagher said. Encourage kids to join after-school clubs and practice relationship-building activities.

Mindfulness and stress-reduction workshops can also encourage individuals to take control in managing their mental health, enhance resilience and improve life skills, Gallagher said.

“We know that suicide can affect everyone, so the good news is that there is room for all of us to get involved with suicide prevention,” Gallagher said.