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Teens and suicide

Helping kids identify warning signs of suicide and tips for talking to their friends

One in six high school students has seriously considered suicide, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey1. Nearly one in thirteen students has attempted suicide. With numbers like that, the chances of our children hearing suicidal thoughts from a peer are significant. September 9 - 14 is National Suicide Prevention Week and an ideal opportunity to arm yourself and your teen with the warning signs and suggestions for talking to a child who may be considering suicide.

Suicide is one of the most difficult issues to talk about, even though we hear about it regularly on the news. Chances are, our kids have already heard of someone in their immediate network who has thought of or attempted suicide. While it is hard to imagine our own children contemplating suicide or having to deal with a friend who is, they need to know what to say to a friend with suicidal behavior — and what to do — before they are confronted with the problem. Having this important conversation with your child means they are equipped, not overwhelmed, if and when the moment comes.

Discussing suicide with your child also lets them know that it's a topic they can talk to you about if they ever find themselves in the same place.

Having the conversation with your child

Ask your teen if they have ever heard a friend say something like, "I wish I was dead" or "Life is too hard to deal with, I don't want to do it anymore." If there is a recent news story about a suicide, you can ask them outright if they have ever felt that way, or known someone who has.

Ask how it made them feel. Acknowledge that it is an uncomfortable subject, and that it is ok to talk about tough topics like suicide. All teens should know these key warning signs and helpful guidelines so they are prepared if confronted with the situation:

  • Many kids will not directly express a plan to commit suicide; however if your teen has a friend who writes about death or talks about dying or the world being better off without them, it is likely a cry for help. Other signs can include making plans to give away their prized possessions. These are things that should be discussed with a trusted adult.
  • When a teen talks about suicide, even though it may seem like they are being dramatic or simply seeking attention, it can be very serious. It is another strong indication there are some big challenges going on in his or her life.
  • Tell your child to let their friends know that they feel sad because their friends are hurting, and they want to be a good friend to them. Often, a suicidal person feels completely alone and disconnected from everyone around them. Just the reminder that they have friends can be very comforting.
  • Suicidal thoughts can be a part of depression, and depression is treatable by a medical professional.
  • Don't promise to keep their thoughts of suicide a secret. Tell your child to help their friend identify a safe adult to share this with. If they won't tell an adult, let your child know that being a good friend means they need to let a teacher or parent know anyway.

If your teenager or a friend of theirs is struggling with suicidal thoughts, early intervention is critical. Fortunately, in New Jersey, information about what to do next and access to specialized resources for youth up to age 21 is available, often at no cost to the family, by calling PerformCare at 1-877-652-7624. This includes Mobile Response, a 24/7 service where a specially trained mental health professional can come to someone's home within an hour of calling to diffuse a crisis and connect families and youth to needed services.

Talking to your teen about how to help others can be empowering for them, and being non-judgmental about issues regarding the tough topics like suicide can help them feel more comfortable about being open with you about any fears they may have.

It may save a life.

Samantha Jo Broderick, LSW
PerformCare New Jersey