How should you talk to your teenager about suicide?
Teen suicide rates have been climbing in recent years, with suicide now the second cause of death among teenagers, after accidents. And for every child who goes through with suicide, many more make the attempt.
“The most important times to talk to your teen about suicide are often in the aftermath of major stressful life events,” said J. Eric Vance, M.D., a psychiatrist with Carilion Clinic’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “These include breakups with boyfriends or girlfriends, getting in trouble at home or school, losing status or privileges or quitting what had been an important activity.”
You should also have that talk if you notice signs of serious depression. These may be changes in a teen’s mood, sleep patterns, appetite or energy level or a sudden disinterest in school or family activities.
Some parents may even discover that teens are “self-harming”—cutting or scratching their arms or legs.
Teenagers are believed to commit suicide as a reaction to being depressed by major stresses in their lives. Before they go through with it, they often withdraw from their family and friends and feel as if they are a burden to them.
So how do you broach the subject of suicide?
“It sometimes feels awkward to ask directly, but a parent can acknowledge that sometimes, people get so sad or upset that they may start thinking of suicide,” Dr. Vance said. “Ask your teen whether things have gotten so bad that they’ve been thinking about dying or hurting themselves. If they say yes, get them mental health therapy. It can be life-saving.”
Be sure to stress that they are not a burden to you.
“It is important to give them a clear message of support and love and try to make it clear how important they are to their friends and family,” noted Dr. Vance.
Tell them how much pain their death would cause and focus on the promise of the future and your teen’s future goals. People who think about suicide have often lost their natural fear of death and their hopes for the future.
It’s also best to not leave a teen alone at such a time and to remove any firearms, medications and sharp objects until the crisis has passed.
You may worry that bringing up suicide will somehow plant the seed for your child to begin thinking about it, but Dr. Vance notes that is not likely.
“It is much more likely to give the teen a feeling of relief that they can share this painful feeling with someone who loves them,” he explained.
Once the subject has been raised, it’s important to check in periodically with teens about their thoughts and feelings. It also becomes easier to talk about it.
Keep in mind that suicides sometimes occur in clusters, and that one suicide in a community can lead to others by those who’ve been on the verge. If you’ve been worried about your teen’s depression and hear of a suicide in the family or community, it’s a good time to raise the subject.
“Even if a teen has been through therapy, it is vitally important to get them back in if suicidal feelings return,” Dr. Vance said.
By all means, keep the lines of communication open with your teen, and be sensitive to their feelings. Can’t we all remember how difficult it was at times to be a teenager?
Learn more about the warning signs of depression in teens.