By Barbara Becker, Ph.D.
Director of Government Relations and Community Partnerships, AllHealth Network
Commissioner, Colorado State Commission on Suicide Prevention
As parents, we are often confronted with when and how to bring up sensitive issues with our children: those sometimes awkward but very critical conversations about drinking, drugs, driving, seatbelts, and safe sex. It is so important that we also have a smart and meaningful conversation around suicide prevention and mental health.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among persons aged 10 – 14, and the second among persons aged 15 – 34 years according to Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Colorado consistently has one of the highest rates of suicide in the nation. It is a public health issue that cannot be ignored. In both Arapahoe and Douglas counties we have been faced with teen suicides on an all too frequent basis.
Every year our children are exposed to more and more material through the ever-expanding world of media and social networks. This brings the world closer together and the consequences can be both positive and negative.
Recently, there has been much attention given to a Netflix original series that focuses on a fictional youth’s suicide. The result has been an onslaught of opinions around what is appropriate for youth to watch, what should not be watched, and what should be watched with a parent or other adult advisor.
While we cannot shield our children from all that is out there we can use it as one of those opportunistic “teachable moments” if we are prepared. How can you best be ready to have an open conversation with your child about mental health and suicide prevention?
It is important that you have an understanding yourself about these important issues. Don’t be afraid to start the conversation – your children are already aware of mental health and suicide through the media and through their own interactions at school and in the community. Having that open and direct conversation will be appreciated by them. Gather your courage to start the dialogue. Keep the conversation at a level that is appropriate for your child’s developmental level (the older the child the more detailed the conversation). Be honest in your approach. If your child has a question you cannot answer, go and find the answer and then circle back and share it with them. Take this as an added opportunity to encourage them to reach out to trusted adults when there is a situation that is too difficult for them to handle by themselves.
Every suicide is different. However, many individuals exhibit some of the same behaviors when they are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Learn the risks and warning signs of suicide. Help your children understand these as well. It is important for them to be able to recognize these in their friends and classmates. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention lists these as some of the warning signs to look for:
If a person talks about:
- Being a burden to others
- Feeling trapped
- Experiencing unbearable pain
- Having no reason to live
- Killing themselves
Specific behavioral things to look out for include:
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online for materials or means
- Acting recklessly
- Withdrawing from activities
- Isolating from family and friends
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
- Giving away prized possessions
Be supportive of help-seeking behavior. Talking about one’s anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues with a professional leads to an individual feeling heard, and ultimately being able to address the underlying reasons that have contributed to the distress.
Be familiar with resources for your child and for yourself – and share those resources See AllHealthNetwork's Child, Adolescent & Family Services Page
As a community, we have the responsibility to teach children how to best navigate the world and addressing mental illness and suicide is critical to that goal. Don’t let discomfort prevent you from having a tough conversation—it could save a life.