When & How Do I Talk to my Child About the topic of Suicide?

After speaking in public schools on this topic I am often asked by students and parents a number of  questions I don’t have time to address in my presentation.  I thought I would offer brief answers to one of those questions here in 2 parts:

When and How Should I Talk to my Child About the topic of Suicide?

My Child Has a Friend Who is Suicidal?  What Do I Tell My Child?

 

When and How Should I Talk to my Child About the topic of Suicide?

When: The topic of suicide normally doesn’t arise unless a family member, friend or celebrity takes their life.  When Netflix premiered their monster hit, 13 Reasons Why, in March 2017, much of the U.S. was talking about the show’s primary subject: teen suicide.  (You can read my blog on 13 Reasons Why here.)  While some choose to take advantage of such opportunities to talk about this difficult and uncomfortable topic, others choose to leave it alone – usually because they simply don’t know what to say.

In regard to our children, there are those things we like to call “teachable moments.”  Should an event prompt this particular topic, it would most definitely qualify as one of those moments.

The days of considering suicide a taboo topic are long gone.  Even the mainstream media has begun giving it quite a bit of press.  And for good reason.  From a 2016 article in the Houston Chronicle:

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States for people ages 10 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control‘s data from 2014, and is the 10th leading cause of death overall.

And from the New York Times:

“Suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, a federal data analysis has found…”

How:  To borrow a slogan from Nike, just do it.  I tell students at every assembly, “We parents are deeply flawed.  We’re just ‘old teenagers.’  Just like you, we laugh and we cry; we have good days, and bad days.  Sometimes we mess up.  Sometimes we get things flat wrong.  But, no one on planet earth loves you more than your parents.” 

My point is this: as a parent, you don’t need a degree in psychology or counseling to talk to your child about suicide.  Just talk to them.  If they refuse to talk about it, this is a clear sign that they desperately need to talk about it.  (Refusing to talk is different than your child saying something to effect of, “I’m so hurt and confused.  I need a couple of days to process this.  Can we talk then?”Never force the conversation, but don’t sweep it under the proverbial rug either.

The suicide of a loved one or friend leaves us with endless questions.  A student approached me following one of my talks.  They said, “My friend took his life.  I was told if you commit suicide you go to hell.  Is that true?”  (I address that question at length here.)

Amidst all the questions regarding suicide, a cornerstone of truth I learned at one of the conferences I’ve attended on suicide intervention is this:

99% of those who attempt suicide don’t want to die – they just want the pain to stop.

No one enjoys talking about suicide (including me.)  But, should an event bring the topic into the public square, take advantage of it.

 

My Child Has a Friend Who is Suicidal?  What Do I Tell My Child?

Because my own son took his life, I counsel people to always err on the side of caution when suspicious of a friend or family member being suicidal.  In other words, intervene immediately.   If you intervene and you’re wrong, at least they will forever know you cared enough to check on them.  If you don’t intervene, and you were right, you might well be soon attending a funeral.

I tell students in no uncertain terms, “Should you suspect a friend of yours of being suicidal, talk to them immediately.  Then tell them, ‘We’re going right now to talk to an adult (if at school, the counselor who will, in turn, notify the parents; if off campus, the parents; if the relationship between the student-at-risk and their parent is estranged, take them to the nearest adult whether that be a school counselor, teacher, coach, youth pastor, etc.).

Mental health professionals agree that communication is a key to helping “talk a suicidal person off the edge of the cliff.”  The Houston Chronicle – written due to a cluster of teen suicides – asserts:

The key to managing grief, mental illness and suicidal thoughts is communication. Often times, those who are struggling tend to isolate instead of communicate… Through it all, communication is key to breaking out of the cycle of hopelessness and connecting to a support system. Sometimes, [the person at risk is] at a place where they can’t communicate.  It’s then we must be their voice.

Regarding the quote immediately above – rather than “sometimes,” I would offer that “most times” the person-at-risk can’t communicate what’s going on – at least this would apply to the vast majority.  Simply put, they are unable.  Since they’re brain is “broken”, unable to connect with logic, the ability to intelligently articulate their crippling pain is out of cognitive reach.  Gradually losing all sense of reality, the individual begins to believe lies common to those considering taking their own life i.e. “my family won’t have to worry about me anymore, ” “the world will be better without me/I don’t matter,” “I’m a burden to everyone,” “the pain is too much to bear,” “there is no hope, no help,” etc.

If you’re reading this – and are presently suicidal – understand that the statements cited immediately above are complete and total lies.  You are loved.  You do matter.  Your family and friends love you and would be devastated at your loss.  The familiar axiom is: Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  While your pain may seem to you beyond help, know that there is most certainly help and hope.  Should you not want to speak with a family member or friend, please call the Suicide Hotline at: 800-273-TALK (8255)

Lastly, a child who has a friend they suspect of being suicidal may feel like they will be betraying their friend’s trust should they tell an adult; or, that it’s their responsibility to carry their friend through this crisis.  This is nonsense.  As a parent, tell them, “It is not your job or responsibility to carry a burden of this nature and weight on your own.  There are professionals who’ve gone to school and worked all their life for the sole purpose of helping hurting people just like your friend.”  Again, always err on the side of caution.

I encourage students, “Your friend may at first be very upset, even angry, with you for telling an adult.  Let them be angry.  You may well be saving their life, and saving their family from unspeakable grief.”