Few tragedies make us wonder more about the order of our lives than when a teenager or young adult commits suicide. Sadly, this is too common as suicide is the third leading cause of death among those aged 15-24. Moreover, a recent national survey by the Center for Disease Control indicated that 16% of U.S. high school students report that they think seriously about suicide and half of those state that they have made an attempt.
As we consider this topic we also all do well to keep in mind that there is a risk of contagion whenever a teen commits suicide (e.g., a risk of another teen committing suicide). I’ve never known an adult who intended to glorify suicide. But that can be exactly what happens when a teen suicide is sensationalized or overly memorialized.
With those comments in mind, here are a few tips for approaching your teen about this topic:
• Don’t force a conversation about the suicide, but make it clear you’re interested in discussing your teen’s thoughts and feelings about it if he or she is open to that.
• Let your teen take the lead in the discussion. Try to avoid sharing your perspective until your teen’s thoughts and feelings appear to have been fully vetted. (In my experience this is hard for many of we parents to do).
• Offer empathy in response to whatever your teen says. Empathy to a teen is like a warming sun to a spring tulip: it facilitates more opening up.
Some things to consider offering once it is your turn:
• Let your teen know (or affirm the point if your teen has already made it) that suicide constitutes the worst possible choice a person can make. There is nothing about suicide that is worthy of glory, reinforcement, romanticizing or undue attention. It is a tragic and terrible behavior engaged in by people who are experiencing overwhelming pain and/or confusion.
• Ask your teen if he or she has ever thought about hurting himself or herself. (It’s a myth that asking this question, by itself, will promote or worsen suicidal thinking or behavior.) If he or she states that he or she is thinking about committing suicide arrange for an immediate evaluation by a qualified mental health professional (you can call the emergency services unit of your local community mental health center or take your teen to your local emergency room).
• Consider asking your teen what he or she thinks it would be like for you if he or she ever committed suicide. Then, either agree with what he or she has said or share more. This would also be a good time to reaffirm your deep love for your teen and the specific things that your teen says or does that you value.
• If your child knew the teen who committed suicide let him or her know that a grieving response is normal and expected. The balance is to give those thoughts and feelings the time and space they need while also trying to live life as normally as possible.
• If your child knew the teen who committed suicide stress that there is no way to know the causes of that particular teen’s suicide. Very little insight can usually be gleaned from the circumstances of the teen’s life (e.g., the degree of academic success, how much cohesion appears to be in the family, etc.). As a psychotherapist my clients usually let me in to very private and hidden areas of their lives; however, even I do not often know every important factor that causes them to behave in a particular way.
• Let your teen know that you will arrange for him or her to speak privately with a qualified mental health professional about these issues if he or she would like that.
There are many preventative strategies Here I will share three (I am more thorough about this in my parenting book):
√ Spend at least one hour a week doing special time with your teen. A regular line of communication makes it more likely you’ll be in the loop if your teen’s mood darkens. Click here for a download on how to do this weekly exercise.
√ Do all that you can to make sure that your teen has identified his or her competencies and is manifesting them in the world.
√ Try to ensure that your teen is sleeping at least 8.5-9.5 hours a night, is eating a balanced diet that limits processed carbohydrates and sweats and breathes hard an hour 5-7 days a week.
In closing, if your teen is showing signs of mental health disturbance, please err on the side of caution and arrange for a qualified mental health professional to do an evaluation, even if your teen is opposed to the idea. For a referral, click here.