Family psychotherapist, Fiona Yassin of The Wave Clinic, offers parents suggestions on how to talk to their young person about suicide and what to avoid doing during these important and emotive conversations.
Know that talking about suicide does not lead to suicide
Many people believe that talking about suicide will lead to suicide. It doesn’t matter what age a person is; no indication talking about suicide with someone means they will go through with it. The opposite is true. The more we talk about suicide, the more we reduce its stigma.
Stay in the present moment
People who feel depressed or suicidal often can’t see into the future. Therefore, asking a young person who feels this way to think about the joyful things coming up, like holidays or Christmas, or asking them to think about what they might be leaving behind is not going to work. We do it to appease ourselves rather than the young person in question.
The situation can feel unfortunate and uncomfortable for the family, so caregivers try to shut that down as quickly as possible. The best thing you can do is stay present with your young person. Challenge yourself to stay with them in their sadness and despair and reassure them that you hear them and are there to listen.
Focus on listening
It’s important to focus on listening to your young person at the moment, and you don’t try to move them along. When caregivers try to comfort their children, they often hand them a tissue or tap them on the shoulder.
Although it may feel like the best and most natural thing to do, it does put a full stop in and signal to the young person that their feelings or issue don’t matter, invalidating them. As a result, the young person may not feel seen or heard. This is likely to escalate feelings people may already have that they do not understand.
Avoid using accusatory language
When young people use violent language about suicide, such as ‘I want to blow my brains out’ or ‘I want to blow my head off’, it can be hugely concerning and stressful for parents. As a result, parents tend to shut down and tell their young person not to be silly or dismiss their feelings as over the top or attention seeking.
It is very important to notice every time your young person talks about their mental health and suicide, no matter how unfathomable or distressing it is to you.
Do not be afraid of the word suicide
Suicide is a word people tend to have big feelings about. This is mainly because people have long described someone who dies by suicide as ‘committing suicide’. The term ‘commit’ likens suicide to a crime and implies it is punishable.
As a result of this stigma, people tend to avoid the topic of suicide altogether—language matters when discussing issues of suicide. Avoid sensationalism and inflammatory language such as commit, but do not be afraid of the word suicide itself.
Using the word suicide helps to remove the stigma surrounding it and makes the topic accessible. In addition, if young people learn about suicide, it will help them to talk about it if they feel suicidal.
Mirror the language of your young person
Using the most appropriate language for your teen or child is important. Mirror the language they use, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel or how much you may dislike the terms or phrases. Reflecting on the term to them in how they gave it enables them to hear how it is for them and shows you are not scared of meeting them in that place.
However uncomfortable, scared and distressed you may feel, you must stay calm and centred. People often tap into anger when they are scared. Check that you do not sound angry. Be honest if you sound angry or your young person thinks you’re angry.
Let your child or teenager know that even though you may sound angry, the emotion you’re feeling is sadness.
Reassure your young person they will not feel like this forever
This could be a bleak moment for your young person where they are scared and do not see a future. Let them know that, to your knowledge, you know they will not feel like this forever. This is a moment that will pass.
Never agree to keep a conversation about suicide secret
If a young person confides in you about their feelings of suicide or that they have suicidal ideation, they may ask you to keep it a secret. The reality is that there are no secrets to be kept about suicide.
You must share that information to keep young people alive and put their safety first. So be transparent with your young person and tell them why you cannot keep this information a secret. But let them know you’ll support them in telling significant others, such as a doctor, psychiatrist, or family member.
Stay with your young person after speaking with them
Even if you feel the conversation with your young person has ended in a peaceful place, do not leave them alone when it has finished. Take extra precautions and remove any objects that could be used as a way to follow on with the discussion about suicide if they were left alone, such as shoelaces, belts, knives, and blind pulleys.
Yassin said: ‘If your young person is suicidal or has suicidal ideations, seek professional support. Plus, ensure you are talking to the people who can extend their support network, such as the school counsellor.’
Warning signs of suicide in young people and children
A comprehensive study of young people ages 11 to 17 and their parents found that amongst the teens who reported thoughts about taking their own life, 50% of their parents said they had no idea.
In the same study, three-quarters said they had no idea their children had recurrent thoughts about death.
To help parents and caregivers understand what to look out for, Yassin has outlined some of the warning signs of suicide in young people.
Yassin said: ‘You may see young people thinking of ending their life saying goodbye to pets, giving away or dividing up possessions, having notable mood swings, misusing drugs or alcohol, or isolating themselves from family. So look out for anything that signals your young person is preoccupied with death.’
‘For example, they may have started asking many questions about death, you may find death or suicide on their search history, particularly ‘how to’ questions, or they may suddenly have in-depth knowledge about suicide or dying.’
Yassin also alerts parents to the risk of posting about suicide online: ‘Social and online media has made it easier for children and young people to see postings about suicide. Not only can they be traumatic for children to see, but they can also provoke young people.’
‘A young person already struggling with their mental health may see this, realise there is an exit point and want to copy it. Some young people may suddenly realise suicide can get them out of a dark place. Others may be attracted to the media attention or conversation around the person who has taken their life, particularly if they feel they are not seen or heard.’