Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the US in children ages 10-14 and in adolescents ages 15-24.
I keep hearing about middle and high school kids dying by suicide, should we be talking to our kids about this?
The statistics report that about one child dies every five days by suicide. The past two weeks have been no exception. In our community in Colorado, two high school-aged students were reported to have died by suicide just a few days apart. Then across the coast, we learned about a teacher and a principal who died by suicide over the past week. The rates, younger ages and mental health crisis that America faces is unprecedented.
So, as you can imagine over the past two weeks I have heard from parents and even administrators asking what they should be doing. Parents are often afraid to talk to their kids about suicide not wanting to put ideas in their heads. I understand their fears…Let me share a session with you from the past week about how a family and I talked to a 15-year-old about suicide.
Mary and her mom came in to see me as they have for the past several years. Mary is a bright, loving, high achieving student with a heart of gold. Mary also has Major Depressive Disorder for which she has been in therapy and on medication to treat for a while. When Mary is with her friends and hears about teenage angst she feels things more intensely. She tends to hold onto other people’s problems as her own and she can experience periods of deep depression. Throughout those dark times, Mary has engaged in cutting, binge eating and has even had suicidal thoughts. We have created safety plans, social supports and check-ins to assure her safety during these more difficult times.
When I saw Mary in my waiting room I knew she has a lot on her mind. She started off talking about homecoming, tests from the past two weeks and usual family issues. Then about 15 minutes in she asked, “did you hear?” I asked her what she was referring to and she mentioned the students at the nearby high school. With a heavy heart, I said that I had.
At that point, Mary’s mother interjected and asked whether talking about this would just stress Mary out more. She argued that she already had enough on her mind and that this seemed to be too much right now. I commented that it was clear that Mary wanted to talk about it and that arming her with information would be helpful. Mary agreed, she said she had been waiting to talk about it, to try to understand why and how it happens and she needed to let her emotions out. She felt angry, sad, scared and sorry for the family and friends those two students left behind.
Here are some considerations that I use when deciding how to talk to a child about suicide:
- Age- not just birth years but also emotional age. I consider their level of maturity and ability to handle novel and difficult information. If I assess that they may be too young and or not ready, I advise parents to simply share that the person has died and that the cause of death is not yet known.
- Address fear head-on- when a parent does decide to share this information reassure your child that you and other loved ones will not die by suicide (if that is in fact how you feel). Kids often get concerned that death or illness of others will happen to their own family so assuring them that it will not be helpful.
- Timing- pick a time where you will not be interrupted and that you have your child’s attention. You can use a media headline to prompt the discussion about a tragic story that people are talking about.
- Rehearse- adults are often highly uncomfortable talking about suicide. So, plan out in your head what you want to say, how you want to deliver it, what your beliefs are about the issue and if you are nervous admit that too. By being prepared yet honest your child will be more likely to also admit their discomfort or knowledge of the topic.
- Ask questions- your child may be quiet or say that they don’t know of anyone who has ever talked about suicide. That is okay but still ask them what their thoughts are about. Ask them if they have ever had those thoughts. Ask them what they think happens to someone in their life to drive them to end their life. Use it as a chance to get their thoughts and also share yours.
- Stay calm- as I described earlier Mary’s mother jumped in and attempted to stop the conversation. Once she was calm she was able to hear about the times when her daughter has felt hopeless and wondered if life would just be easier without her being in it. By staying calm and open we were both able to hear about Mary’s thoughts around the topic which should keep the door open to future conversations on the topic.
Mary ultimately shared what I have heard other children question which is they are afraid they could feel so terrible one day that what if thought about doing something like this. This prompted us to review with her that with open communication, reaching out to others, getting help with problems, staying active, maintaining hope, working on problem solving skills, continuing to take medication, having a safety plan and working on self awareness are all actions and qualities that are healthy coping skills and can be preventative.
If you or someone you know needs help please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at
Take a Breath Luncheon
Wednesday, October 17, 2018 I will be keynoting a Mommy Burnout talk to benefit children who have suffered severe abuse, neglect and trauma. Limited tickets are still available. Located at PPA Center 11:30a-1:30p in Denver, CO.