How to talk to your child about suicide
Tips for starting a conversation if your child has known someone who has died by suicide, or has shown warning signs themselves
Movies and TV shows have incorporated suicide for a long time. From the late ‘80s film Dead Poets Society to the more recent 13 Reasons Why Netflix series, suicide has become a more prevalent and controversial topic. But one thing that can be agreed on is how it’s brought forth the opportunity for dialogue. While these discussions can be uncomfortable, many families have started to have them.
“Asking concrete and specific questions is key when talking about suicide. So is answering those questions with concrete and specific statements,” says Elizabeth Reeve, MD. She is a HealthPartners psychiatrist who specializes in the mental health of children and adolescents. “There is a misconception that discussing suicide with your child could give them ideas to do so. But this is not the case.”
Should my child be a certain age before we would discuss suicide?
There are appropriate age groups to start having these talks. Depression, anxiety and non-suicidal self-harm can be discussed starting in middle school. Suicide and larger mental health conversations can probably wait until high school. But if a child has been impacted in some way or brings the topic up on their own, an earlier talk should happen. Parents might not always need to start the conversation. But they should be prepared and not ignore a request or signs from a child that warrants it.
“If a child has recently experienced someone taking their own life, start by asking them some simple questions to get a sense of how they’re feeling,” says Dr. Reeve. “It will also give you a chance to let your child know that there are people they can go to for help. These people include you, a close adult, a teacher or someone through their faith organization.”
Some of the early questions Dr. Reeve recommends asking are:
- “What do you think about that?”
- “Did you know that person?”
- “How did you find out?”
- “Would you ever think about hurting yourself?”
“If they tell you they have thought about death, don’t panic. Wondering about these things is a natural adolescent process. But if they have thoughts on actually taking their own life, a larger conversation should be had,” Dr. Reeve says.
What are some signs that my child may be experiencing suicidal thoughts themselves? And what should I do as a parent?
Even if a child hasn’t experienced a loss, parents should be aware of warning signs that may show a mental health problem. Self-injury, chemical dependency and impulsive behavior all may point to a deeper issue. Also look for early signs of depression. These could include social isolation, dropping out of sports, changes in social groups and increased sadness. Depression may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts or actions.
If you think your child may have symptoms of a mental health issue or suicidal thoughts, start asking questions.
“These questions can be challenging, but they are important. Learn if they are hoarding pills, or keeping a weapon in their room. Access to a means to harm themselves can put a child more at risk,” Dr. Reeve says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that suicide is the third leading cause of death in kids ages 10 to 14. It’s the second leading cause in young people ages 15 to 34. And there are a lot more youth in these age groups that attempt suicide than you might think. In 2015, 8.6 percent of high school students who took a CDC-conducted survey said that they had attempted suicide sometime over the past year. More than double that (17.7 percent) said they had seriously considered it.
With mental health treatment and support, suicide is preventable. What’s most important is to make sure your child receives appropriate counseling and evaluation from a mental health professional. It is crucial that the conversation continue in a safe and supportive environment. You can schedule a mental health appointment with a therapist at:
- Park Nicollet
- Stillwater Medical Group
- HealthPartners Central Minnesota Clinic
- Amery Hospital & Clinic
Unfortunately mental illness stigma prevents many people from seeking help. So another first step is ending that stigma. This is the goal of HealthPartners’ Make It OK campaign, and you can take the pledge to join us in that mission at makeitok.org.
- Your child’s mental health: when is it more than just growing up?
- Coping with the death of a loved one
- Suicide prevention