Talking to Your Teen About Suicide

As of the writing of this article, youth suicide is affecting families across the nation. Since 2007, the suicide rate among American youth ages 10 to 24 has increased by almost 60%. In September 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, kids ages 11 to 17 reported the highest rates of suicidal ideation compared to any other age group. And suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24. 

Depression and suicide often coincide. Yet not everyone who is depressed attempts suicide — and not everyone who attempts suicide is depressed. If you’re a parent, a teacher, or anyone who spends time with children and teens, it’s essential to learn the warning signs. These tools can help you prevent youth suicide.

Act On Risk Factors.

Not everyone exhibits the same signs that they’re thinking about suicide, but these warning signs are cause for concern:

  • previous suicide attempts
  • talking or writing about suicide or death, even jokingly
  • seeking access to something lethal
  • being moody, withdrawn or sad
  • saying goodbye or giving away possessions
  • losing interest in things they previously enjoyed
  • taking less care of their appearance
  • anxiety or agitation, including difficulty concentrating or sleeping
  • engaging in self-destructive or risky behavior
  • increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • withdrawal from people they are normally close to

Get Ready for the Talk.

Preparing ahead of time can help you feel more at ease. Here are some ways to get ready:

  • Plan to talk privately where you aren't likely to be interrupted.
  • Whenever you can, talk in person. You could also do it over the phone or by text/email if your teen is more comfortable with that or if you can't talk in person. If you're worried about their safety, it's a good idea to find out where they are and if anyone else is with them.
  • If your teen doesn't want to talk to you about it, find out if they'd talk to someone else and, if so, who. You can also give them a list of places they can go for help.
  • Stay calm. This kind of talk can make people feel very sad or angry. 

Be Genuine, Honest, and Detailed. 

It’s a myth that if you mention suicide, you might plant the idea. By honestly and openly expressing your concerns, you’ll send an important message that you care about them and understand.

To find out if your teen is suicidal, it’s usually best to ask whether they are thinking about taking their own life. In a non-judgmental way, ask: ‘Are you having thoughts of suicide?’ or ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself/taking your own life?’

Being genuine and honest is also important. Say why you're worried. It could look something like: ‘I’ve noticed some differences in you lately, and I’m wondering how you’re doing?’

Finally, describe what you've noticed, such as withdrawal/sadness or increasing drug/alcohol use.

Let Your Teen Speak Uninterrupted.

Parents can be tempted to interrupt a difficult conversation by saying, “I don’t want to hear those things,” or “I had a hard time as a teen, but I got over it.” Instead, say, “Tell me more about how you’re feeling.” 

Let your teen speak, uninterrupted. Take them seriously and acknowledge their feelings, regardless of what they disclose. Don’t try to minimize their problems by saying things like: ‘It doesn’t sound too bad’ or ‘Try not to worry about it.’ Instead, say things like: ‘It sounds like you are feeling really low’ or ‘I can see this is worrying for you.’

Inquire about Their Plans.

Find out if your teen is in urgent danger if they disclose that they are having suicidal thoughts. Gently inquire to see if they have any precise ideas on how or when. If they have a plan, their chance of suicide is typically higher. You can inquire, "Have you considered how you would commit suicide? Have you considered when you would commit suicide?", and "Have you taken any measures to gather the tools you would need to carry out your plan?"

Keep Your Teen Safe.

Call emergency services if you believe your teen is in immediate danger. Your top goal is to keep your teen safe, which may require you to share the information they have requested with emergency services. 

Reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.

Be Compassionate. 

Express your love for the teen.

Tell them that you hear their pain, that it can get better, that you will make sure they get help, and that you will support them every step.

Prioritize Safety. 

Remove weapons from the house, ensure the child or teen is not left alone, and consult a mental health professional immediately.

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