Don’t Be Afraid to Discuss Suicide with your Teens
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
Talking about suicide does not put an idea in their head, but instead, is usually a relief to them. It lets the person know you are open to talk about suicide and allows them to be open about it. Using the word "suicide" establishes that you are talking about the same thing.
Suicide affects many families across the U.S. each year. Unfortunately, it has a long reach; far from being a serious problem only for adults, it's actually the third leading cause of death for people aged 10-24. According to the Center for Disease Control, around 4,600 young people die each year from suicide.
Although the reasons vary greatly, death by suicide is likely common among youths because they don't have the emotional capacity to cope with trauma, such as bullying, sexual abuse, the loss of a loved one, grappling with their sexuality, or relationship troubles. There are other factors to take into consideration, such as undiagnosed mood disorders–including depression–and the fact that the teenage years are a roller coaster of emotion. Young people must deal with pressures at school, from friends, and in their own relationships with their parents as they struggle to find independence, and it can all take a toll on their mental state.
I have heard of two teenage deaths by suicide in the last two days. 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, and you recognize that the person isn't "okay," and that you care.
Ask your teens directly about suicide. 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, decreased 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 trigger 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 happening in our teens' 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.
Big life changes can significantly affect young people, so everything from divorce to a move to a breakup with a longtime friend can leave a person feeling depressed or anxious. One of the best ways to prevent suicidal thoughts is to step in early at the first signs of an event that might trigger emotions and let them know you care. If you're a parent, showing your child that you take them seriously is extremely important. Keep up communication with your teen and show an interest in their hobbies, friends, and who they connect with on social media. Knowing the people your child spends time with can be immensely helpful in keeping them safe and happy.
Those left in the wake of suicide also need our help. The loss is immense, and they need support to 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. Teen Line offers educational brochures and school-based outreach programs available at no cost for future prevention.
Finally, if you suspect your loved one is in immediate danger, don't hesitate: call 911 or a local suicide hotline. Ensure that there are no weapons within range of anything that might be used for self-harm and never leave the individual alone. 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.
At Teen Line, we work to provide personal teen-to-teen education and support before problems become a crisis, using our national hotline and community outreach. Visit our Parents & Caregivers page for more resources and information to help you understand and support teens' mental health as well as promote overall well-being.