Suicide is an issue that no parent wants to imagine will happen to them. But the truth is 9 in 10 teens who take their lives have previously been diagnosed with a mental health condition or disorder, more than half of them with depression or anxiety problems. Maybe your child is merely having a bad day, but maybe it’s something more if this mood has been going on for a couple of weeks.
Depressed people often retreat into themselves, when secretly they’re crying out to be rescued. Many times they’re too embarrassed to reveal their unhappiness to others, including Mom and Dad. Boys in particular are taught to hide their emotions, in the misguided belief that displaying weakness is a bad thing. We shouldn’t wait for children to come to us with their problems or concerns. If you notice a problem, don’t be afraid to say “You seem sad. Would you like to talk about it?”
Not all, but most kids who are thinking about suicide (this is called suicidal ideation) give away their troubled state of mind with upsetting behaviors and actions. Experts have found that one trait common to families affected by a son’s or daughter’s suicide is poor communication within a family, especially between parents and children. However, there are usually three or more issues or factors going on all at once in a child’s life at the time when he or she is thinking about taking his or her life.
These include but are not limited to:
- Major loss (i.e., break up or death)
- Substance use
- Peer or social pressure
- Access to weapons
- Public humiliation
- Severe chronic pain
- Chronic medical condition
- Family history of suicide
If you feel that your child might be a danger to himself, heed your instincts and don’t allow him to be left alone. In this situation, it is better to overreact than to under react.
Often, children who attempt suicide had been telling their parents repeatedly that they intended to kill themselves. You should always take comments such as “I want to kill myself” seriously and never ignore them. Most people who openly threaten suicide don’t really intend to take their own lives; the threat is a desperate plea for help. Never take the risk of being wrong, always respond when the comment is made. The following statements and those like them, should be considered red flags:
- “Nothing matters.”
- “I wonder how many people would come to my funeral?”
- “Sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep and never wake up.”
- “Everyone would be better off without me.”
- “You won’t have to worry about me much longer.”
When someone begins making comments like the ones above or comes right out and admits to feeling suicidal, try not to react with shock or scorn. You risk elevating those feelings. Be willing to listen without judgement to what he or she is really saying, which is: “I need you because I’m in pain and I can’t seem to stop it on my own.” To see your child so troubled is hard for any parent. Nevertheless, the immediate focus has to be on attending to those in need; you’ll tend to your feelings later. In a calm voice, you might say,“I see. You must really, really be hurting inside.”
If your teenager’s behavior has you concerned, don’t wait to contact your pediatrician. Contact a local mental health provider who works with children to have your child or youth evaluated as soon as possible so that your son or daughter can start therapy or counseling if he or she is not in danger of self-harm. If the situation calls for it do not be afraid to contact the local mental health crisis support team or go to the local emergency room if you think your child is actively suicidal and in danger of self-harm.
Let your teen know they are not alone and that everyone feels sad or depressed or anxious now and then, including parents. Without minimizing their anguish, be reassuring that these bad times won’t last forever. Things truly will get better and you will help get your child through counseling and other treatment to help make things better for him or her. It’s usually better to be around other people than to be alone. But don’t push if he says no. Encourage your child to spend time with good friends or family.
Physical activity as simple as walking or as vigorous as pumping iron can put the brakes on mild to moderate depression. The belief behind the benefits of physical activity are that:
- Working out causes a gland in the brain to release endorphins, a substance believed to improve mood and ease pain. Endorphins also lower the amount of cortisol in the circulation. Cortisol, a hormone, has been linked to depression.
- Exercise distracts people from their problems and makes them feel better about themselves.
- Experts recommend working out for thirty to forty minutes a day, two to five times per week.
- Any form of exercise will do; what matters most is that children and youth enjoy the activity and continue to do it on a regular basis.
Don’t ask you child to ask to much of themselves. Until therapy begins to take effect, this is probably not the time to assume responsibilities that could prove overwhelming. Suggest that he or she divide large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones whenever possible and participate in favorite, low-stress activities. The goal is to rebuild confidence and self-esteem. Talk therapy and/or medication usually take time to improve mood. Your child shouldn’t become discouraged if he or she doesn’t feel better right away.