Talking to Children about Suicide

Creating safe environment is key to opening a discussion.

The recent high profile deaths by suicide make it inevitable that children will ask questions and express a curiosity about the topic. However, some parents might feel a sense of uneasiness about answering those questions. Local mental health educators say that the steady increase in death by suicide each year since 1999 makes those conversations vital.

Parents can begin by creating a safe environment for an age-appropriate dialogue, says Linda Gulyn, Ph.D, professor of psychology at Marymount University. “As always, reassure young children that you are there for them no matter what,” she said. “Don't feed into the anxiety. Teens understand it 100 percent, probably more than you realize.”

“Encourage children to ask questions and answer them honestly,” added Jerome Short, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at George Mason University. “Parents should state that they will help their children handle any bad feelings or problems that happen.”

Suicide can be a frightening topic for children and a difficult subject for parents to explain, advised Short. “Explain that people die in different ways and suicide means that people hurt themselves and died from it,” he said. “A more detailed explanation is that our thoughts and feelings come from our brain, and sometimes a person's brain is sick. People feel alone, believe they are a burden on others, and are hopeless that it will change. Some people cannot stop the hurt they feel inside by themselves, but they can get help.”

Parents should have a general understanding of suicide rates, signs and methods of preventing before embarking on a conversation with their children about the topic, advises Monica Band, Ed.D., assistant professor of counseling at Marymount University, who recommends the National Suicide Prevention and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as sources of information. “I would also recommend parents challenging their misconceptions and preconceived notions of [those who] who attempt and think of committing suicide because it is an issue that has an impact across cultures.”

Some children might not understand the difference between feelings of sadness and clinical depression. “Explain that we all get sad and have good days and bad days,” said Gulyn. “Usually we feel better. But kids who commit suicide are so sad that they don't know what to do to feel better. But the truth is there is a way to feel better, and there are very helpful adults in school and at home who are great to talk to.”

However, some children might have difficulty grasping the concept of mental illnesses like depression. “Sad is normal, sad is part of life, and usually we feel sad when something outside of us happens, like when a friend moves away. And we know that we will feel better,” said Gulyn. “Depression is when someone feels hopeless that he or she won't be sad anymore. And that makes them not want to do fun things, or take care of themselves.”

An awareness of warning signs of mental illness and the fact that depression is not a normal phase of adolescence are two factors that Gulyn underscores. “[Depression] is a serious mental health disorder for which there are effective treatments,” she said. “Parents need to be aware of kids isolating themselves from others, especially peers. Other signs [include] not taking care of your physical appearance, consistently performing poorly in school, substance abuse, eating disorders, excessive or inadequate rest.”

If a parent notices any of these symptoms or suspects that their child might be depressed, Gulyn advises a straightforward approach. Don't be afraid to ask your teen directly, “Do you think you are depressed?” or “Have you been thinking about hurting yourself?”, she suggests.

Teaching a child healthy help-seeking behaviors will give them an invaluable tool when facing mental health issues, advised Monica P. Band, an assistant professor of counseling at Marymount University. “If parents raise the child to have specific religious or spiritual beliefs, this could be a way to begin the discussion of how one finds strength, resilience, or peace in times when they feel like they're not in control,” said Band. “Regardless of one’s religious or spiritual beliefs, it is worth it if parents have an understanding and awareness of mood shifts or changes with their children and set an example and expectation with how to address these issues when things aren't feeling right or normal for their child.”

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