Photo: Richard Drury (Getty Images)
As a parent, the idea that my kid—or any kid I know—could be thinking about suicide is one I’d like to push far, far away. No. God, no. Not possible.
This mindset, however, is dangerous.
Because children are killing themselves. Among teens, deaths by suicide increased by 33 percent between 2009 and 2017. Students in Ohio, California and New York died by apparent suicide this past week.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about preventing suicide among young people but we do know this: Silence does not help.
It is important for us to talk to our kids about suicide, and when we do, to use the words: “suicide,” “kill yourself,” “harm yourself.”
“Do not be afraid to directly ask if [your children] are thinking of harming themselves or thinking of suicide,” writes Cheryl King, a professor of psychiatry at Michigan Medicine and one of the nation’s leading experts on adolescent and child suicide prevention. “These questions are asked in the context of caring and wanting to help them resolve their pain.”
In a piece on how to talk to children about suicide (which you should read in its entirety), she offers these sample prompts for parents to use:
- “Given all you are dealing with right now and given what is happening at school, have you had any thoughts about hurting yourself or thoughts of killing yourself?”
- “I wonder if you have thoughts of suicide.”
Questions like these normalize your kids’ experiences, helping them understand that there are no taboo thoughts. After you ask the questions, stay calm and listen, King advises. If your child expresses distress, she suggests responding with: “I’m sorry you are in this pain. Let’s think of what we can do. Let’s see what we can do to figure this out. I want to be helpful. Let’s get help, and let’s learn more together.”
A common myth is that asking someone about suicide can put the idea in their head if it wasn’t there already. Several studies have found that this is not true. In a beautiful blog post titled “Have the Talk,” author Jenny Lawson further breaks down why that assumption is flawed.
Having a talk with your kids about sex doesn’t make them have sex. Having a talk about llamas doesn’t make them llamas. Having a talk with your kids about suicide won’t make them suicidal. Having a talk with your kids about mental illness doesn’t give them mental illness. It does, however, give them tools to help recognize things that might otherwise confuse or terrify them. It may help them to recognize things in themselves or in their friends. And that can save a life.
You can also encourage your kids to talk to their friends about suicide—and give them tools for doing so. Catherine Pearlman, a parenting expert and founder of The Family Coach, tells me, “Kids often know something is not okay with their friends. They see a post on social media or a text in a group chat. But they don’t know how to handle it.”
She suggests teaching kids the warning signs of suicide and telling them it’s okay to ask the question. In fact, it can save a life.
Says Pearlman: “Better to overreact than to miss a chance to intervene.”
If you’re thinking about suicide, or are worried about a friend or loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.