It is terribly sad to read in the news about teenage suicide. This kind of news is devastating for the families involved but it is not uncommon for whole communities to feel impacted. Unfortunately, it’s highly likely that our kids are going to hear about these events too.
Should you talk to your kids about suicide?
If your child does hear about these suicides, or is touched by suicide in some other way, it’s really important to talk about it. Many parents try to avoid the subject of suicide worried that talking about it may somehow place the idea in their kids’ minds, putting them at greater risk. But talking about suicide doesn’t encourage it. Instead, it helps our children understand the people who are involved – and build empathy towards them and in general.
More importantly, talking about suicide helps to minimise the stigma around it and around mental health in general. So, if your children are ever faced with a more personal issue of suicidal thoughts, either themselves or through someone they love, they’ll find it easier to seek the help they need. This is especially important if the suicide has happened within your family. Mental health can be genetic and understanding that and normalising conversations around it will make it much easier for them to find any support they might need in the future.
You should speak to your children no matter how old they are if they have been affected. Of course, how you address it will change depending on their ages. So, here’s how to talk to your kids about suicide.
How to Talk to Your Kids About Suicide
As the parent it’s your job to approach your kids to have the tough conversations. Open the conversation with questions. Ask them things like, ‘What are people saying?’, ‘What have you heard?’ and ‘How does it make you feel?’ You want to be open and listening, and ready to answer their own questions.
How you answer those questions will depend on the age of the child and their ability to understand.
Kindy and prep-aged children
When talking to little ones keep it very simple. Talk about it just like you would if the person had died from cancer or heart disease. You should simply say that the person was very sick and died. You can mention how sad it is for everyone involved, but that they had a bad disease and couldn’t fight it anymore.
With little kids it’s best to give them the basics, and only as much as they are developmentally and cognitively ready for. For each child that will be a little bit different.
From about the ages of seven to 10 or so, you’ll want to focus on being truthful, but not overly expansive. That means giving short, true answers to questions. This is a good approach for any scary subjects. If your ‘short, true’ answers are enough for them, that’s fine. You can stop there. If they have follow up questions, do your best to answer them focusing on being truthful and succinct.
Early high school
Between the ages of 11 to 14 is the time to be more explicit in your conversations. This is the age when our kids are starting to grapple with big, complicated feelings, and when at-risk children may be starting to have suicidal thoughts, or ideate about it, or know others who are.
You’ll want to be clear that mental illness is a disease, just like any other disease, and that to combat it you often need help from someone who is trained to do so. And you want to help them understand that sometimes people who have depression, or other mental illnesses, do die. Help them to feel empathy for how the person must have felt.
Now is also the time to ask deeper, more probing questions. You should ask your child if they have ever thought about suicide or if any of their friends have. Make it clear that you are there to support them, and not to judge or criticise.
Later high school years
Your conversations with your child should be essentially the same as you would have had previously, but in this case you should stop asking ‘if’ and start saying ‘when’. Once your child reaches high school they will know someone who has experienced or is experiencing a mental illness. Or they will have experienced it themselves.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among young Australians. 350 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 take their own lives each year, and for each one that succeeds, there are 100 to 200 more attempts. Mental health experts believe that lockdown and other pandemic measures are also increasing the mental health indicators that traditionally lead to suicide vulnerability. These are things like help-seeking and self-harming.
This is the time to be vigilant. It’s not just what’s in the news that explicitly addresses suicide that could lead to questions from our children, but also the rise in depression and anxiety from the difficult times we’re living in.
If your child has been touched by suicide and needs support, reach out. And if your child expresses suicidal feelings themselves, it’s vital that you do so. There are specialist counsellors who are trained to handle these issues sensitively, and there are dedicated mental health professionals who can help you and your child.
MIND: 1300 554 660
Queensland Health: 13 43 25 84
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14, http://www.lifeline.org.au/
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467, www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
Beyond Blue Support Service: 1300 224 636, www.beyondblue.org.au
Mensline Australian: 1300 789 978, www.mensline.org.au
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800, www.kidshelpline.com.au
Author: Di O’Malley – Founder and Managing Director of Young Minds Health and Development Network, and Counselling Psychologist.
If you or your child is experiencing any suicidal thoughts or need further support after being impacted by suicide, give us a call on (07) 3857 0074 to book an appointment with one of our clinicians. Or you can send us an Appointment Request via this website and we’ll contact you as soon as possible to book a suitable time for you. We’re here to help.