Suicide has been the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24 since 2014, and in Utah it’s the leading cause of death for children ages 10-17. Losing a child to suicide is every parent’s worst nightmare. The best prevention is communication—finding out early that something is wrong, and getting your child the help they need.
“Unfortunately, children having suicidal thoughts or knowing about suicide is more common than you may think,” says Kristin Francis, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Huntsman Mental Health Institute. “We have seen children as young as six or seven reporting suicidal thoughts.”
Why It’s Important to Talk About Mental Health and Suicide
Although Francis acknowledges that expressing suicidal thoughts occurs more frequently in children ages 10 and beyond, she underscores the importance of parents being ready to talk to their kids about mental health conditions from an early age. “Given that roughly half of all lifetime mental health disorders start by mid-teens, parents need to have a plan for how to talk to their children about suicide as soon as it is appropriate.”
“If there isn’t a need to discuss tragic events with your child, then you don’t need to address it with them," Francis says. “If they ask questions, or if you know your young children are going to hear about a tragic event, then you definitely need to talk to them about it—even if they are younger than eight.”
Talking About Suicide May Be Difficult, But Essential
Talking about suicide with your child is important for many reasons, but most important, it helps dispel misinformation. Talking about suicide doesn’t put ideas in someone’s head or cause suicide. Rather, it helps create a safe environment where children can ask questions. Don’t avoid the conversation because it is difficult.
“Suicide impacts almost everyone directly or indirectly. Hearing about it from a trusted source, like a parent or caregiver, will assist your child with the right information and they can speak to others about it accurately.”
Young Children: Keep it Simple
If a really young child asks about suicide, Francis recommends that you keep your answers short and to the point. She recommends saying something like, “This person had a disease in their brain and it took over.” Talk about it like any other health condition or as if the individual died of a heart attack or cancer, such as “They died and it is very sad.” Follow the lead of the child and answer their questions with short answers.
Elementary-Age Children 7-10: Honesty is Best
Francis recommends that at this age, you can give more detail, but still keep your answers short. Continue to emphasize that the individual died from an illness and that death is sad. It’s critical that the parent follow the child’s lead and answer their questions truthfully while being careful not to provide too much information the child may not be ready for. She recommends saying something like “James had a disease called depression and he had it for many years. I wish he would have been able to get more help.”
Middle Schoolers 11-14: Add Detail
By the time a child is in middle school, Francis recommends talking to pre-teens about warning signs.
“Middle schoolers are dealing with a lot of big emotions and likely have heard someone talking about depression or suicide or they may have personally dealt with a mental health condition," Francis says. "Ask what they have heard or what they know about suicide, what feelings they have about it and what they believe to be true about the causes of suicide.”
Gathering information from your child allows you to correct misinformation and enter the conversation where they are. Parents can explain that when a person dies by suicide it is not their fault. “Parents can explain that people with depression sometimes die, it can be a very serious illness, and sometimes it is stronger than the treatment.”
Parents need to ask their children if they have ever had thoughts of suicide or if any of their friends have. “Don’t fear the question, you want your child to trust you and feel safe that they can talk to you about this serious topic,” she says.
Teenagers: Continue the Conversation
By the time a child reaches high school, it is likely they know someone with a mental health condition. The conversation about suicide needs to continue, but at this point, they need to know what to do when they or a friend has suicidal thoughts.
“Ask your teen what they will do if they start having suicidal thoughts, or when they are concerned a friend is having suicidal thoughts," Francis says. "Let them know depression and other mental health conditions are not from a person being weak or a lack of willpower, but illnesses that can be treated. Make sure they know that help is available and that they can always come and talk to you.”
It is critical that parents reassure their teenager that having a mental health condition is normal and they should ask for help.
What if I’m Concerned My Child is Thinking About Suicide?
“In general, a parent should be concerned if a child’s mood has changed, if their performance in school has gone down, if they are having problems with friends, or if they have a loss of appetite or sleep. This is when you want to start asking questions,” says Francis.
If your child starts talking about death and saying life is too hard, or if they think people would be better off without them, or they don’t want to live anymore, that’s when you need to reach out for help immediately. “There are professionals who can guide you through what to do in these situations,” Francis says.
Suicide Prevention Resources
If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or download the SafeUT app.
This blog was updated on September 6, 2022.