This is an installment in our series about teenage depression.
Bringing up the topic of suicide can be awkward and uncomfortable. Many people do not know what to say or want to avoid saying anything at all. It is natural to feel a lot of sadness and fear when recognizing that a loved one may want to end their life, particularly if it’s your teenage child. It can be challenging to balance wanting to help with not wanting to raise an alarm unnecessarily. This is one of the most difficult conversations anyone can face and very rarely is there an exact right thing to say. In actuality, it is more important to have an open line of communication with your teen than to know exactly the right thing to say. Below are some commonly held misconceptions that often hold people back from being able to approach the topic of suicide. We will explore those myths and provide suggestions for a better understanding of how to communicate about this difficult topic with your teenager.
Teen Suicide Myth: Talking about suicide with someone who is not suicidal will put the idea into their head.
Fact: Many people worry that talking about suicide will send the message that it is a reasonable option for someone in distress. Research has shown that bringing up the topic of suicide does not increase suicidality. Those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts often experience a degree of relief because they have the opportunity to talk about how they are feeling, and the conversation can lead to getting help. When suicide is being considered as a means to end suffering, it can be comforting for a suicidal person to be offered help in finding a different option. If a person had not been considering suicide, they tend to continue to not see it as an option.
Teen Suicide Myth: Suicidal statements and actions are just a “cry for help” made for attention.
Fact: Suicidal statements and actions are ways that some people who are struggling express how distressed they are feeling. For teenagers with depression who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, all statements and actions should be taken seriously. Suicidality varies in terms of thoughts, intentions, and actions. For example, it can be true that a person may be thinking about suicide and not have the intent to act on these thoughts. However, any degree of suicidal expression is concerning. Instead of thinking about it as a “cry for help” for attention, it may be more helpful to think about it as a person showing you that they are feeling very distressed, need more support, and are unsure of a different way to go about getting it.
Teen Suicide Myth: People act on suicidal thoughts impulsively.
Fact: Often suicide is the result of a long-term struggle and a person’s difficulty with finding alternate options for relieving distress. In retrospect, people sometimes notice that there may have been a situation or event that immediately precipitated a suicidal action, and the action is then attributed to this one specific incident rather than understood in the entire context and background of the person’s life. A specific incident may act as a triggering event for the behavior, but there is also much more going on.
It is important to recognize the warning signs for suicide in teenagers. The earlier the symptoms are recognized, the sooner your teen can get the help they need moving forward. The American Association of Suicidology recommends the following acronym for identifying risk factors for suicide. Think, “IS PATH WARM”?
S- Substance Use
T- Feeling Trapped
M- Mood Fluctuation
We hope you’ve found these tips helpful for discussing the topic of suicide with your teen.
If you notice warning signs of suicide with your teen, contact a mental health professional or the National Suicide Prevention LifeLine at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If you or someone you know is at immediate risk, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.
Read the other installations of our Parents Guide to Teenage Depression
Teenage Depression Signs & Symptoms
Talking to Your Teen About Suicide
Helping Your Teenager Through Depression
American Association of Suicidology (2018). Know the warning sides of suicide. Retrieved from : http://www.suicidology.org/resources/warning-signs; Joiner, T. (2010). Myths about suicide. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.