It’s a grim reality and something no parent or guardian wants to hear: Child and teen suicide is on the rise.
According to 2017 data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide was the second leading cause of death among kids, teens and young adults from ages 10 to 24 — and it’s increasing among girls. LGBTQ youth face higher rates of suicide and more attempts than their straight peers.
While it may seem inconceivable that a 10-year-old could even think of something as serious as suicide, much less attempt it, there’s evidence that kids as young as 8 are fully aware of what suicide is, says Carolyn McCarty, a psychologist and research professor in pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
“In part because of their access to devices, kids are talking about these issues and other hard issues like school shootings and climate change and war. They’re exposed to a lot more heavy concepts that can weigh on them in addition to just the general stress of being a young person,” she says.
Because of this, it’s more important now than ever before to have an open discussion with your kids about suicide. Here’s how to get the conversation started.
How to talk about suicide
Since kids start understanding what suicide is around age 8, that is a good time to start talking about it.
It might seem like too adult of a conversation to have with elementary school-age kids, but since they’re likely to hear about the topic on their own, it’s a good idea to get ahead of the conversation so you can answer any questions they might have.
For young kids, being direct and keeping the conversation simple is best: Ask them if they’ve heard about what suicide is.
They may ask you why people would want to end their life; a good response is to explain that sometimes people feel so upset that they think they don’t have other options, even though most of the time they do.
Be prepared in case your child asks if you or anyone in the family has ever felt that way. If someone in your family has ever attempted or died by suicide, talking about it could be difficult, so planning what you’ll say ahead of time can be helpful.
For older kids and teens, be aware that they may not want to talk about it or may not have a lot of questions. Breach the subject by mentioning how you’ve seen news about suicide rates being up and you want to talk about it because you care about them and because they’re important to you.
Be aware that they’ve probably been exposed to talk of suicide either by peers or in the media, like a TV show or movie. Make sure they know that they can come talk to you if they have questions or are having suicidal thoughts.
Talking about suicide can be uncomfortable, but the most important part is that you have the conversation in the first place.
“Just having them know that we’re sending the message that we can hear all of this hard stuff and we’re there to help and understand is the most important thing for kids who are at risk,” McCarty says.
Warning signs to look for
There are often several warning signs or changes in behavior that signal when kids or teens are thinking about suicide or feeling suicidal.
They may withdraw socially from friends and family, and try to isolate themselves more. They may start talking about feeling depressed or trapped or not knowing what to do. And their interest in things they used to love — hobbies, activities or even relationships — may wane.
Often, there is a specific event or crisis of some kind that causes suicidal feelings, McCarty says. It could be anything that would have a big impact on their life, like relationship problems, trouble at school or a more personal crisis.
Impulsivity also plays a role in suicidality, McCarty says, particularly with kids and teens (rather than adults) who are thinking about taking their own life.
“In the moment people will feel at their lowest, like they can’t manage it, but if you give them an hour or a day or a week those feelings are going to change and it will feel more manageable,” she explains.
Ultimately, if you notice any major behavior changes, that’s a good opportunity to talk about how they’re feeling.
PSA: Lock up your guns
If you have guns in your house, it’s crucial that you lock them up. If your kids can’t access a gun, they can’t accidentally or intentionally injure themselves (or worse) with one.
If you don’t have a convenient place to store guns safely, there are easy ways to fix that. You can purchase a gun lock or lockbox online or at a local firearms or sporting goods store.
For people who live in the Seattle area, Public Health — Seattle & King County keeps a list of places to buy lockboxes and tips for storing guns safely.
If you have any other potentially dangerous objects in your house, such as potent prescription medications, it’s a good idea to store those safely and out of the reach of your kids, too.
Where to go for help
The first step, of course, is talking to your child. If any concerning thoughts or behaviors come up during that conversation, it’s a good idea to seek additional help to make sure your child gets the support they need.
Going to their primary care provider is a good start, as they will have resources to mental health providers and services in the community. They can also help by prescribing medication, if your kid or teen ends up wanting to go that route.
Outside of the doctor’s office, you could also seek help from a school counselor or go straight to a therapist or mental health counselor.
Whatever your approach, the important thing is to focus on what’s right for you, your child and the rest of your family, McCarty says.
Suicide Hotlines and Resources
For your reference and to share with your teen. If you or someone you love is in immediate danger, call 911.
- For 24/7 help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255.
- If you’d rather text, use the Crisis Text Line 24/7: Text HOME to 741741 (no text messaging charges apply).
- For LGBTQ kids and teens who need help, reach out to The Trevor Project.
- For transgender kids and teens looking for community-specific care, try Trans Lifeline.
- For help from other teens trained to offer support, check out Teen Link.