Our society has made suicide a taboo topic to talk about, which is unfortunate since suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year old Americans. Despite the myth, talking about suicide does not lead people to commit suicide. In fact, talking honestly about suicide can be a tool for prevention. Being open to talking with your teen about their feelings and about any thoughts of self-harm can actually help educate and support them with their mental health needs.
Now, you may be asking yourself, “How on earth do I talk to my kid about suicide?!” and “How do I know if I even need to have this talk?” plus “What signs do I look for to know if I should be concerned?!”
Okay, take a deep breath. This can be a scary topic for everyone, so let’s look at the big picture. First, let’s talk about some triggers that could cause a teen to experience suicidal thoughts.
Change. Change is not easy for anyone. However, teens tend to take change especially hard.
Loss of friends or changes in friend groups. Friendships are extremely important at this developmental stage in life. A loss of a friend or being rejected and/or betrayed can hit your teen especially hard.
Lack of support. This could be lack of support from friends, peers, teachers, and/or family members.
Big life event. Has your teen experienced a big life event that has been out of their control? This could be losing a loved one, being in an accident, being ill, and so on.
Bullying. The impacts of bullying can be extremely hurtful and overwhelming, which can lead teens to feel out of control and alone.
Now, what are some warning signs to look for?
Change in behavior. Have you noticed that your teen is frequently sad? Have you noticed them isolating from friends and family (while understanding that some pulling back from family is normal for teens)? Or, is your teen no longer interested in things that they used to be into? Has there been a drop in their grades? Does your teen no longer care about anyone or anything? Have you noticed a change in their sleep and appetite?
Talk about suicide. Have you heard your teen make comments about suicide? Have you noticed that they’ve been researching suicide online? Has your teen has been writing or drawing about death or dying?
Expressions of hopelessness or futility. Has your teen made comments like, “Why bother? It’s never going to get better anyway.” Or, “I’m such a failure. There’s no point in trying.” Or, have they stopping talking or dreaming about or planning for their future?
All of the above can also be signs of depression, which may or may not occur in conjunction with suicidal thoughts. Either way, if you see these signs in your kid, it’s an important time to talk to them thoughtfully, honestly, and compassionately, and it’s a good idea to seek professional help through counseling or a medical doctor.
By now, I’m sure you’re asking, “how? How do I talk with my teen (or anyone I care about, for that matter) if I’m concerned they may be suicidal?”
First and foremost, provide a safe environment. Ask how your teen is doing. Genuinely and compassionately listen to their answer, even if it’s “fine.” If your teen opens up more, listen to what they say, and try your best not to interrupt or give advice. Especially if your teen mentions self-harm or suicidal thoughts, do your best to stay calm, and reassure them that you love them and that you can figure this out together. It’s probably ideal not to immediately problem-solve. This tends to make teens clam right up or get upset at not having control, and most importantly, you want them to know it’s safe to honestly tell you how they’re feeling.
If your teen sticks with “fine” or “meh,” gently share your concerns. You might start with “I’ve noticed_________________, and I’m worried about you. So, I wanted to check-in. I’ve seen you seeming so (sad, lonely, etc.) that I wanted to ask if you might have had thoughts about hurting yourself.” Again, it’s very important to listen to their answer openly and supportively, especially if it’s scary or hard to hear.
Make sure your teen knows that they will be heard and supported in whatever they say. Let your teen know that you are always there for them in any way that they may need.
Seek professional help if you feel like the extra support will benefit your teen or you.
If at any time, If you feel that your teen is in imminent risk to harm themselves, please call 911 immediately, or go to the nearest emergency room. A trained medical professional can assess your teen and determine if they need to be hospitalized, if there are precautions to take, or if they are safe to go home.
Of course, talk of suicide should always be taken seriously. However, talking about suicide does not mean that your teen is going to commit suicide. You and your support are one of the best resources your teen has. So, it helps to educate yourself, notice and observe changes in your teen, check-in, and talk openly with your kid about any feelings they may be having. Such connection and openness are huge preventative measures.
And, remember, you don’t have to do this alone. If you’re concerned, just reach out.
By Allison Barragan
Thrive Therapy & Counseling
1614 X St., Suite A
Sacramento, CA 95818
Statistics from https://save.org/about-suicide/suicide-facts/.