For parents and caring adults, the topic of suicide could be one of the most frightening things to think about, much less openly discuss with our children.
Unfortunately, the reality is that suicide is a prominent issue for teens and children today. In 2015, the CDC reported that suicide was the second leading cause of death among teens and young adults. Suicide is discussed among peers at school and even sensationalized in TV shows and media. While it is a very intimidating topic to broach with children, open conversations about it are essential to suicide prevention. Here are some tips to remember when starting this conversation:
- Prepare ahead! Most likely, this conversation will not come naturally and it will feel uncomfortable. Come up with an opener ahead of time, like “We’ve heard a lot about teen suicide in the news lately and we think it is an important thing to discuss”. Pick a time when the teen or child is more likely to be able to focus on the discussion and most receptive to talking to you; this should be when they are not stressed or exhausted. Seek support from other adults ahead of time if you need to express your anxiety or fear about this topic before talking to the child so that you can remain composed in front of them. You want to present some level of calm so the child knows that you can handle whatever they are going to say on the matter. If they sense that you won’t be able to tolerate what they have to say, they will most likely not feel comfortable sharing about it in the future. That being said, you are human and you can expect that the conversation will not go perfectly. This is OK and you can practice compassion toward yourself, knowing that you are doing your best. It is appropriate and even helpful to openly acknowledge to the child that this is a difficult and awkward thing to talk about.
- Talking about suicide will not cause an increase in risk of suicide. It is important to remember that asking a child direct questions about suicide will not “put the idea in their head”. Talking about suicide openly will reassure them that this is a topic up for discussion and it does not have to be taboo. The more comfortable they feel talking about suicide with an adult, the safer they will be. Suicidal thoughts are especially dangerous when they are kept a secret from those that can help. Show children and teens that you want to hear what they have to say on the matter by asking them directly what they think about suicide, if they have experienced suicidal thoughts before, and if it is something that’s talked about amongst their friend group.
- Practice non-judgment. One of the hardest parts of talking to children and teens about suicide is managing our own emotional reactions to their responses. We will undoubtedly feel intense emotions if they do disclose that they have thought about suicide before. It is important to mindfully respond in a manner that does not make the child feel judged or criticized for this. Statements like “How could you think such a thing” or “Killing yourself is so stupid, why would you ever do it” will be detrimental to the conversation. Also, asking the child why they feel suicidal might not always be helpful because they may not know the answer or be able to verbalize the reasons. This may be frustrating and leave many of your questions unanswered, but the important thing to focus on if the child has thought about suicide is how to proceed in a way that keeps them safe and gets them help immediately.
- Take it seriously. If a child reports that they have had thoughts about suicide, adults need to respond by getting help. Talking about or thinking about suicide is not a “normal” response to stressors or problems; it is a red flag indicating that the person may be suffering from a mental health issue that requires treatment and support. Sometimes adults may attribute talk about suicide to the melodrama of adolescence because the alternative possibility of them truly feeling this way is scary to us. However, adults need to seek out consultation from a mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychiatrist as soon as possible. Ignoring the issue will not result in it going away or passing. If the threat of suicide appears imminent, parents should seek a safety assessment immediately by going to the nearest emergency room, contacting a mobile crisis team, or seeking support from your local police department.
Taking on a conversation like this can feel overwhelming and it is important that adults seek out their own support on the matter as well. Parents often believe that suicide is something that would never impact their child, and therefore they feel alone or unprepared when they have to address it, but there are many excellent resources to provide help and support. El Camino Hospital offers the After School Program Interventions and Resiliency Education (ASPIRE) Program in Mountain View and Los Gatos. ASPIRE is an intensive outpatient program that provides treatment for youth in middle school, teens, and young adults. Please contact us directly if you have any questions. Our program provides a no-cost assessment with a licensed provider at no cost to the family. In addition, the following is a list of excellent resources.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
SAVE Suicide Awareness Voices of Education: www.save.org
JED Foundation: www.jedfoundation.org
Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide: www.sptsusa.org