“He was happy, popular, athletic, all A honor roll”
“She was always there for anyone who needed her. She had never met a stranger.”
“He never said anything about being depressed. As far as we knew, everything was fine!”
These are words said by parents and loved ones following the suicide of their middle school, high school, even elementary school students. I know, it seems unfathomable to think about. “How could they not have known?” we ask. “If they didn’t know their child felt this way, how are we supposed to know?” You are not alone. Many parents struggle with feeling fear over these difficult discussions. I am the mom of a 12-and 8-year-old. I am also a licensed therapist and suicide prevention specialist. During the past several years, I have listened to people recount the pain and guilt that comes with losing a friend or child in this horrific way. While I do not claim to have all the answers, I have gained some knowledge of things that might help when navigating these difficult conversations.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 10-24 year olds, preceded only by accidents. For every teen who dies by suicide, 25 attempt. Most teens show clear warning signs in the week before they attempt. These risk factors and warning signs do not mean your child will attempt, however they should not be ignored.
- Changes in personality: sadness, withdrawal, irritability, anxiety, exhaustion, indecision.
- Changes in behavior: deterioration in social relationships and school and/or work performance, reduced involvement in positive activities
- Changes in sleep patterns: insomnia, oversleeping; nightmares
- Changes in eating habits: loss of appetite, weight loss, or overeating
- Fear of losing control: erratic behavior, harming self or others
- Substance abuse
- Recent/serious loss (death, divorce, separation, broken romantic relationship,)
Any changes in mood or behavior, especially sudden and drastic changes, can be cause for concern. Also for teens, loss of friends or a break-up can be devastating. In their stage of brain development, it can be impossible to see things with the needed long-term perspective.
Talk openly with your child about mental health and suicide
The onset of depression and other mental health-related disorders often happens in the teen and young adult years. Yet, the stigma teens feel in seeking mental health services is strong. The way you talk about mental health will greatly impact how they see it as well. Talk about it at the dinner table. Show love and compassion for others who experience depression and anxiety. Let them know if they ever feel sad, hopeless, and think about ending their life- you want to know. Your child needs to know in no uncertain terms that you are not afraid to talk about suicide.
Know Your Child’s World
Many people hypothesize social media has a connection with the rise in adolescent suicide. One theory is our children never leave school because they are constantly connected to the lives of their friends and frenemies. It is important to know your child’s world. Who are they friends with, what do they watch, what makes them sad, and what makes them feel confident? I don’t mean parents should stalk their kids. That would be too easy! Trust is an important part of the parent/child relationship. Instead, parents need to listen. . . wait for it. . .without judgement. I know, yikes!
I work with college students every single day. Let me say this, if a parent constantly tells a child why they don’t like their friends and why they shouldn’t hang out with them, the child will stop sharing information about friends. Same goes with romantic relationships. If a child tells their parent how disappointed they are that a mean girl at school snubbed them, and the parent’s response is simply, “ignore her, that stuff doesn’t matter when you are a grown up.” They will quit telling you about their day. If they share they are sad and they don’t even know why and life is just THE WORST and the parent’s response is, “don’t be so dramatic, other kids have it way worse than you,” they will stop sharing how they feel. If a B in math is unacceptable-then home will cease to be the safe place they can be relaxed and human.
Let me say it a different way: The person most likely to die by suicide is a male between the ages of 45 and 65. Why? Well, many reasons, but in part because they feel pressure. Lots of it. To provide and to be the strong one and to not show weakness. In the same way, many times our children feel pressure. Lots of it. And sadly, it is often from us. I know- we just want them to be healthy, happy, successful adults. We don’t want them to make the same mistakes we did. But I implore you, do whatever you have to do to listen first. Without interrupting and without minimizing their experience. Bite your lip, pinch your arm, whatever you have to do to stop from giving advice. And if you do that consistently-I give you a money back guarantee-they will start to ask for your advice when they are ready..
So many resources are out there to help you navigate this incredibly scary world of parenting. Here are just a few:
Crisis Text Line: Text “Start” to 741-741
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Mobile Crisis of TN: 1-855-CRISIS-1 to access a counselor in TN 24/7/365
The Jed Foundation: www.jedfoundation.org
The Jason Foundation: www.jasonfoundation.com
Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network: www.tspn.org
20% of high school students admit to thinking about suicide. We may not want it to be part of our child’s lives, but even if they do not experience these feelings- odds are someone in their friend group will. They need our support. Let’s be fearless in our conversations about mental health with our children.
Editor’s Note: The author of this article was recently on NPR’s Movers and Thinkers podcast. Movers & Thinkers – Demystifying Death