Discussion of suicide with kids
Q: I know suicide is a real concern, and I know I should be talking to my kids about it, but I don't know where to start. How can I talk to my kids about suicide without scaring them or planting bad ideas in their heads?
A: Discussing suicide with your children is not easy to do, but it is essential to keep them safe. Research shows that talking about suicide does not plant the idea in the head of an individual or lead anyone to attempt suicide. Rather, talking about suicide can provide profound relief to a child who is thinking about suicide, as it is a topic often kept silent due to discomfort, shame and stigma.
Planting seeds about the importance of mental health and talking about thoughts of suicide if they arise will help children feel comfortable enough to bring up the subject in the future. Open communication shows your children their concerns will be heard by a trusted adult when they are in need.
Pick a low-stress time when you have your child's attention to bring up the topic. Long car rides, dinnertime and evening downtime are all opportune times to initiate a conversation. Rehearsing a script is a good way to make yourself feel more comfortable with what you'd like to discuss. "I saw that your school is having a program for students on suicide prevention," for example, is one good way to start a dialogue.
Feel free to admit that this is a difficult subject to talk about. By acknowledging your discomfort, you give your child permission to do the same, and you can delve deeper into the conversation. Ask for your child's opinion, and be direct. If you see changes in your child, acknowledge them. Say things such as, "I have noticed a number of changes recently. I have learned that these changes sometimes mean a person is feeling depressed. Are there times when you think about killing yourself?"
Give them the chance to think about their answers, and then listen when they open up to you. If you hear something that worries you, be honest about that, too. Never punish a child for expressing painful emotions. Suicidal feelings typically come from the experience of unbearable emotional pain. This is a time to give parental support and obtain professional guidance.
Always consult your child's pediatrician concerning your child's health.
In a clinical emergency, dial 911 or go directly to the closest emergency department.
If you or a friend need to talk with a counselor for help or for resources available in your area, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK. The free, 24-hour hotline is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Your call will be routed to the nearest crisis center.
Another option is to text "GO" to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line, where a trained crisis clinician will respond to concerns about depression and suicide 24/7.
-John Ackerman, Ph.D., is Suicide Prevention Coordinator of the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children's Hospital.