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Supporting Your Teen After a Suicide

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Supporting Your Teen After a Suicide

Jul 03, 2023

With U.S. rates of teen suicide and suicidal ideation on the rise, how should parents respond when their teenager loses a friend or acquaintance to suicide? Pediatrician Cindy Gellner, MD, provides insight into guiding your teen through the grieving process, fostering open conversations about suicide, and determining when professional mental health assistance is required.

If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you're not alone and help is available. Call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Line at 988 to connect with mental health professionals in your area.

Episode Transcript

Suicide is a tricky subject to talk about with teens. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2021, one person died by suicide every 11 minutes in the United States. Recent reports show that suicides have actually increased since then. There's a good chance that your teen either has known someone who died by suicide, attempted suicide, or will complete suicide in the future. The big question is how can you help your child process this?

Prevalence and Impact of Teen Suicide

My older teenage son has been hit by this situation twice now since the pandemic started. The first was a long-time childhood friend who was only a year older than he was and whose family we were very close to. She died by suicide in December 2021. Recently, my older son's employer took his life unexpectedly. And both deaths hit my son differently. Both left him with questions that were hard to navigate.

The more recent one also brought up survivor's guilt because he saw this person so often and looked up to him as a mentor, and he said that he wished he could have known how much pain he was in so he could have done something about it. There were some things that we were able to do for his employer's family that helped my son with closure. That's really all that can be done. The hard truth is that if someone is so depressed, so lost, unless you are right there in the moment and can intervene, it's hard to prevent someone from following through with their suicide.

The death of someone who otherwise seems healthy and young is hard for us to wrap our brains around sometimes. We have so many questions. So how can you help your teen if they are faced with this?

Supporting Teens in Processing Grief and Survivor's Guilt

First, don't be afraid to talk about what happened. Your teen needs to process this. Your teen may be confused, angry, sad, anxious, or all of the above. It may trigger them to think about their own thoughts of self-harm. Talking with these teens is actually a great way to start the conversation about whether they need to talk to a therapist or not. It can help them with opening up and learning new coping skills, and it lets them know that you are there for them no matter what. The best person for your teen to talk to about these feelings is you or another trusted adult rather than posting about it on social media.

Next, help your teen process all of those emotions. Let them cry. Let them scream. Let them talk and let them ask questions. Let them go through the grieving process, and if they need some space, let them know that you are there for them. If they are more clingy, let them stay by you. Use age-appropriate language and be honest with them about the details surrounding the suicide, but don't hyperfocus on them. Validate that what they are feeling is totally normal and let them know what the other person did is not their fault.

Again, that survivor's grief is real. Teens deep down want to help others. Having a friend die by suicide can really rock their world and make them feel numb for a bit.

Seeking Help and Resources for Suicide Prevention

Like most teens, my son was not immune to mental health challenges during the pandemic. We have seen a big increase in suicidal thoughts in high school kids specifically. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, girls were more affected than boys. The percentage of female high school students who seriously considered suicide rose from 24% to 30% between 2019 and 2021. While suicide is the 11th leading cause of death overall in the United States, the report shows that it comes in as number 3 for the leading cause of death among high school students between the ages of 14 and 18.

If you, your teen, a friend, or a loved one has thoughts of suicide, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Suicide is not reversible. Look out for your teen and for each other.