With so many messages about suicide available to young people through television shows or news stories, one easy way parents can help their children better understand the issue is with a conversation.

It’s important to know you can help prevent suicide by being aware and taking action.

Le Bonheur Medical Director of Psychiatric Services Valerie Arnold, MD, answers questions parents might have when discussing suicide with children and teenagers.

Q: When should you talk to your child about suicide? Is there a certain age?

A: No, there’s not really a certain age that parents should focus on. It’s more about your own child’s development, maturity, and exposure to information about suicide or portrayals on television. And more than just focusing on suicide, parents should strive for open, non-judgmental communication about any issues their child might be searching for answers about from the very beginning. It’s more important to be prepared to answer questions whenever they come up.

Q: If your child says he or she has thought about suicide, how should you react?

A: Many people have brief thoughts that life is not worth living or they wish they could go to sleep and not wake. It becomes worrisome if the thoughts are persistent or plans are made. React with love and make sure to always follow up with your child if he or she has brought up suicide.

Q: Why do you think suicide rates are increasing?

A: Now that kids are more connected on social media, little things become bigger because they never go away. Adolescents also talk less, text more and use more ephemeral apps like Snapchat to communicate. It is much easier to send a mean text/post than speak it face to face.

Q: Should I worry about any medicine my child is taking and the negative side-effects they cause?

A: Suicide warnings have been associated with antidepressant use. Pediatricians decreased prescribing them and the suicide rates went up. It’s important for people close to suicide to seek help and receive treatment. Just make sure to discuss any potential negative side effects with your child’s doctor and come back in if your child experiences depression or thoughts of suicide after starting a new medication.

Q: If someone in my child’s class attempted suicide, is my child more at risk?

A: People are more at risk if someone they know and respect takes their life because the taboo has been broken. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide risk factors include:

  • Health Factors: Mental health conditions including depression, bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, schizophrenia, borderline or antisocial personality disorder, conduct disorder, psychotic disorders, or psychotic symptoms in the context of any disorder, anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, serious or chronic health condition and/or pain
  • Environmental Factors: Stressful life events which may include a death, divorce or job loss, prolonged stress factors which may include harassment, bullying, relationship problems and unemployment, access to lethal means including firearms and drugs, exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide
  • Historical Factors: Previous suicide attempts, family history of suicide attempts
  • Below are possible warning signs if you are concerned:
  • Talk: If a person talks about: being a burden to others, feeling trapped, experiencing unbearable pain, having no reason to live, killing themselves
  • Behavior: Specific things to look out for include: increased use of alcohol or drugs, looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online for materials or means, acting recklessly, withdrawing from activities, isolating from family and friends, sleeping too much or too little, visiting or calling people to say goodbye, giving away prized possessions, aggression
  • Mood: People who are considering suicide often display one or more of the following moods: depression, loss of interest, rage, irritability, humiliation, anxiety

Other helpful resources for parents include:

National Institute of Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/FFF-Guide-Home.aspx

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: https://afsp.org/about-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs/

Mental Health First Aid International: https://mhfa.com.au/courses/public/types/teen