How to talk about suicide? First, talk about it

If you suspect that your child may be at risk for suicide, ask direct questions like, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”

How did I not see the signs? What could I have done? These are questions no parent wants to ask. While suicide can be a dark and difficult subject to talk about, shining a light on it can help save a life.

Suicide by the numbers

More than 47,000 Americans die by suicide each year, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the second-leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 34. Kentucky Youth Risk Behavior Survey data shows 7.9% of Kentucky youths have attempted suicide and 14.8% have seriously considered it, with 13% making a plan about how they would attempt suicide.

Julie Cerel, Ph.D., past-president of the American Association of Suicidology and professor at the University of Kentucky, points out that while suicide attempts among young people are increasing, it is not clear whether teens are more willing to disclose attempts than before. Suicides in Kentucky may be linked to the opioid epidemic, poverty, lack of good mental health care or easy access to firearms and other lethal weapons, according to Dr. Cerel.

Furthermore, experts agree that depression and other mental illness play an overwhelming role in most suicides. However, far too often, individuals with mental illness have not sought or received treatment. In fact, untreated depression is a primary contributor to suicide.

What parents can do: Know the warning signs

Knowing the signs of depression is the first step in getting help:

  • Decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping, including sleeping too much or insomnia
  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Irritability, frustration
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Increased anxiety
  • Overeating or loss of appetite

Norton Children’s Medical Group

Find a pediatrician near you

“Depression is not a passing mood,” said Erica L. Bailen, M.D., pediatrician with Norton Children’s Medical Group – Lakeview. “It’s not a condition that goes away without proper treatment. Girls are more likely to attempt suicide, but boys are more likely to succeed when attempting suicide. If you notice any signs, take your child to his or her pediatrician.”

Warning signs for suicide include those of depression but also can include these symptoms:

  • Threats or comments about killing themselves, especially if they verbalize a plan or have a way to end their life
  • Increased substance use
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, society
  • Uncontrolled anger, rage
  • Reckless behaviors or engaging in risky activities
  • Dramatic mood swings

Additional resources

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255) can offer support for parents and children.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a list of mental health professionals and resources for teens and families.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry includes a child and adolescent psychiatrist finder, where you can search for a provider near you.

Health insurance provider
If you have health insurance coverage, contact your insurance company for a list of mental health care providers included in your insurance plan.

High school counselors
Your child’s high school counselor may be able to refer you to a mental health professional in your community.

Talk to your teen

If you suspect that your teen may be at risk for suicide, asking direct questions can help save his or her life. Questions like, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” are critical in getting the help your child needs. While many parents may feel that asking these questions may put the thought of suicide into the child’s mind, according to experts like Dr. Cerel, that is not the case. In fact, teens often feel relieved when someone asks them directly about suicidal thoughts or activity.

Talk with your doctor

Pediatricians and other pediatric providers will screen for depression and other mental illnesses should your teen have any of the listed symptoms. The pediatric primary care provider then can refer you to a provider who specializes in mental illnesses.

Learn more about mental illness and suicide

Eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide through education and awareness. The American Association of SuicidologyNational Alliance on Mental Illness and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention are great resources to educate yourself and your loved ones on mental illness and suicide.

Dark days can be illuminated by the light of hope. Give yourself or a loved one hope by sharing the message of how to prevent suicide. If you suspect a teen might need help dealing with stress, depression or other mental health issues, contact the teen’s physician.