Parents: Please don’t be afraid to discuss suicide with your teens
In the last two days, I have heard of two teenage deaths by suicide. In one of them, the school was proactive and engaged the support of mental health professionals. Teens, faculty and staff were given permission to discuss their powerful feelings, and grieve. There was also support for teens who might be feeling unstable as a result of this incident. At the other school, there has been no opportunity to process that this death was a suicide. Everyone is left with their big feelings and questions, and expected to go on as if things were normal.
While the natural inclination may be to steer away from uncomfortable topics like suicide, as parents, our job is to prepare our kids for the future – both the good and the bad. Talking about them sends the message that it is okay for them to come to you to talk. We can think (and hope) they are too young to know about or experience things like depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem, but from my experience, they know and feel more than we think. Start conversations early (in age and maturity appropriate terms) to decrease stigma and show them you are a safe haven for their big feelings.
There is an erroneous belief by even the most educated people that asking about suicide puts the idea in a person’s head. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Putting the word suicide out there shows that you are open to further discussion, you are recognizing that the person isn’t “okay,” and that you care.
If their answer is “no,” you can feel reassured and know that you’ve shown yourself to be a person who isn’t afraid of the hard topics. If the answer is “yes,” then the first trick is not to freak out or overreact. Remain calm and available to listen, find out if they have a plan or specific time/day, listen to their intense pain. Most suicidal people don’t really want to die; they just want out of what they feel is unbearable emotional pain. Talk to them about the pain, not by problem solving or advice giving or judging, but by really listening and taking the time to understand. The situation may be more than you can handle, and professional help and support may be indicated, both for you and your teen. Your teen’s school and/or pediatrician are good resources for referrals and guidance.
We do know that most teens who attempt suicide give warning signs. A dramatic change in appearance or behavior, a decrease in motivation, drop in grades or even comments like “things would be better if I weren’t here,” are red flags for intervention. A breakup, loss of a friendship or death of a loved one can be triggers for a teen who is already struggling. We can’t be too scared to ask the questions or think “not my kid.”
But what about the kids who don’t talk to us or show us any signs? That’s the hardest question of all. We can’t always predict or know what is going on in our teen’s minds. But, we can try to keep the dialogue open. We can do our best to be present even when they don’t seem to want us around. We can talk about suicide and depression, role model positive coping, and let them know they are loved, even when we don’t “like” their actions. We can take words like “crazy” or “mental” out of our vocabulary, and educate ourselves about the pressures teens face.
Suicide is no one’s fault. Loved ones are not responsible. Media and television attempt to simplify suicide by blaming another person’s actions or a single event as the cause. Suicide is highly complex and involves many factors that can’t be simplified by a single cause – neurobiology, personal and family history, stressful events, social environment, coping mechanisms, etc. 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness; many times hidden from others and untreated. Depression and anxiety can often run in families, but can be treated with the appropriate help.
We also need to teach our kids to look out for their friends and know when their friend’s secrets are too much for them. In our suicide prevention outreach, we say: “a mad friend is better than a dead friend.” There is help and hope if the teen can access it. With intervention and support, most suicidal teens do not grow up to be suicidal adults.
For those left in the wake of suicide, they also need our help. The loss is immense and are in need of support to help them heal. Just acknowledging their loss and letting them know that “I am here for/with you” is a good start. Our partners, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, offers many resources for those affected by suicide loss, and Didi Hirsch offers local grief groups. For future prevention, Teen Line offers educational brochures and school based outreach programs available at no cost.