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Don’t Be Afraid to Talk to Your Child about Suicide

Suicide is a major public health problem in the United States, affecting adults and young people alike, including youths in Tennessee. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10-24 in the United States, and was the third-leading cause of death for that age group in Tennessee in 2014. In the state that year, 114 children and young adults took their own lives. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show national suicide rates increased 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, with the highest rate increase coming in girls 10-14.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in Tennessee and across the nation. Here are two critical points to keep in mind and tell others about:

1. If parents notice any sign that their child may be experiencing suicidal thoughts or considering suicide, the next step is to talk to their child. Experts say the best path is to bring the subject into the open. Don’t be afraid of asking direct questions and having frank discussions. Parents can also receive help from a number of resources; more on that below.

2. No matter how troubled a child is, there is hope. When kids are depressed, they have a tough time believing their outlook can improve. But with help from professionals, struggling kids can, indeed, recover. Expert treatment can have a dramatic impact on their lives and put them back on track to a brighter future.

Recognizing the Warning Signs

The first step in helping your child is to look for warning signs. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Talking about suicide—for example, making statements such as “I’m going to kill myself,” “I wish I were dead” or “I wish I hadn't been born”
  • Getting the means to take your own life, such as buying a gun or stockpiling pills
  • Withdrawing from social contact and wanting to be left alone
  • Having mood swings, such as being emotionally high one day and deeply discouraged the next
  • Feeling trapped or hopeless about a situation
  • Doing risky or self-destructive things, such as using drugs or driving recklessly
  • Changing eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Creating poems, essays or drawings that refer to death
  • Experiencing a recent severe loss (especially in a relationship), or the threat of a significant loss
  • Having a severe drop in school performance
  • Giving away belongings or getting affairs in order
  • Saying goodbye to people as if they won’t be seen again

How to Talk to Kids

If you suspect your child is having suicidal thoughts, here are a few questions you can ask to start the conversation:

  • Do you ever feel like just giving up?
  • Are you thinking about suicide?
  • Have you wished you were dead or wished you could go to sleep and not wake up?
  • Have you actually had any thoughts of killing yourself?
  • Have you thought about how or when you would do this?
  • Do you have access to weapons or things that can be used as weapons to harm yourself?

The nonprofit Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide offers a few suggestions that can help parents have that conversation.

  • Pick a time when you know you’ll have the child’s full attention—perhaps a ride in the car, or maybe in response to a story in the news that people are talking about.
  • Think about what you’re going to say ahead of time.
  • It’s OK to admit to the child that talking about this is hard for you. Doing so can make it easier for the child to admit to those feelings, too.
  • If what you’re hearing in the conversation worries you, it’s OK to tell the child that. But don’t overreact because that can shut down any future communication.

Where to Get Help

If you have concerns about your child, first remove all means of harm, then look for sources that can help your child. Here are some options:

  • In the event of immediate risk of harm, call 911
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)
  • Mobile Crisis Services for Children and Youth. Mobile Crisis Services is a state response team that’s on duty 24 hours a day year round to help with mental health emergencies. The team’s crisis specialists can meet with you where you are. Call 855-CRISIS-1 (855-274-7471).
  • A schoolteacher or principal. In Tennessee, all teachers and principals receive youth suicide awareness and prevention training.
  • Mental health provider
  • A family physician

Tennessee Suicide Prevention and Crisis Resources

Here are some options for finding more information on suicide prevention and crisis services in Tennessee:

Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. TSPN has a series of events scheduled in September in its statewide support for Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Activities include educational, awareness and memorial events across the state.

The Jason Foundation. The organization focuses on preventing youth suicide through educational awareness programs for young people, educators/youth workers and parents. Tools and resources are provided to identify and help at-risk youth.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center. This national resource center provides training and materials to help professionals who are working with people at risk for suicide.

Youth Mental Health First Aid

Remember, there is hope for building resilience on the path to recovery. Resources like Youth Mental Health First Aid, a training program for adults that is managed by the National Council for Behavioral Health, can help adults assist youth (ages 12-18) who are experiencing a mental health or addiction challenge or crisis. The program, primarily designed for adults who are in contact regularly with young people, teaches a five-step action plan for how to help young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations. If you are interested in training, please contact Janet Watkins, Director of Training, TN AWARE at Janet.Watkins@tn.gov.