When kids ask about scary or sad things they see on the news, explaining it in an understandable way is difficult for parents. Suicide seems to be a regular topic in social feeds and on TV. Talking about suicide with a child can be uncomfortable and make you feel a little out of your depth, but it’s important to be the one to initiate and guide these difficult conversations for family health.
Before you talk to your kids about suicide, you may need to make sure you have a good grasp of the subject. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found a 25 percent increase in suicides in the past two decades. We commonly think of suicide as affecting those who suffer from severe depression, but more than half of the people who died from suicide had not been diagnosed with a mental health condition, according to the CDC.
Suicide is tragic and permanent, and while that seems obvious to parents, kids don’t always grasp those aspects. Talking about suicide frankly and realistically gives an alternate perspective to something that is sometimes glorified when committed by celebrities or discussed on TV.
How to Talk to Your Child About Suicide
1. Find out what your child already knows. With celebrity suicides on the news and TV shows like “13 Reasons Why” covering challenging subjects, your child may already be pretty familiar with the basics of suicide.
“Be curious with your kids to find out what they know, what their impression of suicide is,” said Patrick Aquino, MD, who leads the Division of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Mass. “Kids have probably already thought about this or researched suicide online or in social media. By the time you’re talking to them, they may have a lot of information and mixed messages.”
2. Emphasize what a tragedy suicide is. Sometimes the outpouring of love, support and remembrances celebrities get when they commit suicide can, in some ways, glorify the act. Make sure kids understand that it is permanent and tragic — that there are friends, family members and loved ones left behind with unanswerable questions.
3. Stay connected with your kids. Know what they’re watching, and watch with them when possible. Let your kids know that you’re available to talk.
“Provide opportunities for non-judgmental listening,” Dr. Aquino said. “Make sure they know they can always come to you with questions or worries about themselves or their friends.”
4. If you’re concerned, ask. Dr. Aquino encourages parents to ask children how they’re doing and not be afraid to tell kids if you’re worried about them.
“Talking about suicide does not increase the risk,” he said. “If you’re worried about your child, ask them if they have thoughts of suicide. It’s important to identify those who may be at risk.”
5. Get your child help if needed. Among adolescents ages 13 to 18, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that 1 in 5 has or will have a serious mental illness. Ninety percent of young people who died of suicide had an underlying mental illness. Signs include anxiety or sadness that interferes with their ability to do daily activities, withdrawing from things they once loved, drastic changes in behavior, more risky behaviors and having sudden, overwhelming fear or panic attacks.
Resources for Talking About Suicide
Talking about suicide with a child is not easy, and it can be tough to know when to start. NAMI reports that suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24. When your child is exposed to suicide by celebrities, TV, social media or people near them, it’s important to begin talking to them. Likewise, if your child is showing signs of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions, talking to them about their feelings and finding help are the first steps.
Netflix partnered with several mental health organizations to develop a toolkit to help parents talk to kids about the topics in “13 Reasons Why.” Your family health-care provider is another great place to start to get advice.
For anyone contemplating suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is available for support 24 hours a day. You can also make an appointment with Lahey’s Psychiatry & Behavioral Medicine department for counseling help.