When I first became a mother, the most important ‘keep safe’ skills that I knew to talk with my child about were drugs and alcohol, and child abuse. Not once during my first two decades of being a mother did I ever think to ask my eldest child about suicide. She was 25 years old when I first asked her. Was it awkward? Yes, it was. Did she look at me like I had gone crazy? Yes, she did. I had to explain to her that I had focused so much on other people possibly hurting her, that I never once thought that she could hurt herself. Starting the conversation is hard, but to protect our youth and to show that we care, we have to ask the question, “Are you thinking about ending your life?”
Families everywhere have experienced the impacts of suicide. This is a topic that most feel ill-prepared for, or feel that it will not affect your family. Many think that suicide is not relevant because we believe it will never happen to those we love. The reality is that at some point in our lives, many of us will be touched by the impacts of suicide, whether through a family member, a friend, a co-worker, or acquaintance. In order to increase our awareness and thereby help prevent suicide, we have to become comfortable talking about it.
Below are some key factors that can help you address the topic of suicide with your children, nieces and nephews, cousins, friends, and even strangers.
- Timing is everything. Pick a time when you have the best chance of getting your child’s attention. Sometimes going for a car ride, berry-picking, preparing a meal, or sewing together can assure you of a captive, attentive audience. Alternatively, a suicide that has received media attention can provide an appropriate and timely opportunity to bring up the topic.
- Think about what you want to say ahead of time and rehearse a script if necessary. It always helps to have a reference point. For example, you could say, “I was reading in the paper that youth suicide has been increasing…” or “I saw that your school is having a program for teachers on suicide prevention,” or, “I heard there is an opportunity for a suicide prevention training?”
- If this is a hard subject for you to talk about, admit it! ”You know, I never thought this was something I’d be talking with you about, but I think it’s really important.” By acknowledging your discomfort, you give your child permission to acknowledge his/her discomfort too.
- Ask for your child’s response. Be direct! Ask, “What do you think about suicide?” or “Is it something that any of your friends talk about?” or “Have you ever thought about it? What about your friends?”
- Listen to what your child has to say. You have asked the questions, so consider your child’s answers. If you hear something that worries you, be honest about that too. “What you’re telling me has really gotten my attention, and I need to think about it some more. Let’s talk about this again, okay? Thank you for talking to me.”
- Do not overreact or under-react. Overreaction will close off any future communication on the subject. Under-reacting, especially in relation to suicide, is often just a way to make ourselves feel better. Any thoughts or talk of suicide, such as, “I felt that way a while ago but don’t anymore,” should always be revisited. Remember that suicide is an attempt to solve a problem that seems impossible to solve in any other way. Asking about the problem that created the suicidal thoughts can make it easier to bring it up again in the future. For example, you could simply say, “I wanted to ask you again about the situation you were telling me about.”
Asking can save lives, so start the conversation.
If you are having thoughts about suicide or know someone who is, know that help is out there, and you are not alone. Call the SEARHC Helpline at 1.877.294.0074 for 24-hour support.
For additional information about how to talk about suicide, please visit the following links: