How should I discuss suicide with my children?

Q. The many suicides of young people in the media have made me really worried as a parent. I have two teenagers – a boy of 14 and a girl who is just 16. As far as I know they are doing well, with the usual ups and downs of the teenage years. But sometimes I worry if I could be missing something. How could I tell if they were in distress or even suicidal?

I don’t want to be morbid but you read in the newspapers how frequently the suicide came out of the blue and the parents never suspected a thing. How can you spot the early warning signs as a parent? You also read about copycat suicides which is terrifying. Should I talk to my children about what is going on in the media and, if so, how should I go about it? I don’t want to make matters worse or worst still put ideas in their head.

A. Although the media coverage about the tragic suicides of young people can raise important issues, there is the danger that some of the reporting can inadvertently present suicide as a legitimate, or even heroic, choice for young people in distress. Given the potential for copycat or clustering of suicides, it matters greatly how suicides are reported in the media in general and how they are discussed with young people in schools and families in particular.

When suicide-prevention programmes were being developed for schools in the US, many of the initial evaluations found that some programmes (which focused on providing information and educating young people about suicide) did not reduce the incidence of suicide and may have actually increased young people thinking about it as an option.

The key learning from these initial programmes is that raising the subject of suicide is a delicate conversation to get right with young people and that prevention should largely focus on positive mental health and equipping your children to deal with distress appropriately.

Talking to your children about suicide
When the subject of suicide comes up in the media or if your teenager hears of a suicide in their local area, it is important that you discuss the issue with them, rather than keeping silent. Take the view that as teenagers they will have discussed it with their peers and it is important that you as their parents are also involved in this conversation.

The first thing to do is acknowledge the tragedy of what has happened and give them space to share their feelings and thoughts. Then make sure to acknowledge the distress and upset the young person must have been feeling in this situation, and how particularly sad it was that they did not talk to someone or realise the other options they had to tackle their problems. Crucially, you should also make sure to acknowledge the enormous distress for the young person’s family and friends and to help your teenager empathise with this. Talk of how serious and irreversible suicide is and the great harm suicide does to a family, the community and society.

The key message that you want your teenager to take away is that suicide causes great harm to other people as well as the young person and is never a legitimate option to dealing with distress. While being sensitive and empathic you want your teenager to realise that the “heroic” course of action for someone in distress is to take action to deal with their problems and to continue to live, despite their suffering, for the sake of themselves and those close to them.

Suicide prevention
The suicide-prevention programmes in schools that show the most potential are the ones that emphasise positive mental health, active coping strategies when dealing with problems and reaching out to others and talking when in distress. In the same spirit, it is useful to adopt a similar approach with your own children. Sit down and talk with them about the importance of looking after their own mental health, in particular emphasising the importance of talking to someone when under pressure or stressed.

Remind them that you are always there to listen, no matter what is upsetting them, whether trivial or serious. Make sure to practise this openness as a parent, developing the habit of listening first to your teenager – even if you have just had a row or they have done something wrong or, and especially, if they are embarrassed about talking.

Explore coping strategies
It can be particularly helpful to explore with teenagers what coping strategies they might employ when under stress or dealing with a difficult situation. For example, you could explore with them “Who they might talk to if feeling down about a problem?” ( in addition to yourself) or “How would they reach out to a friend they thought was feeling down?”

There are particular risk factors associated with teenagers harming themselves such as engaging in drinking, drug taking or other risky behaviours particularly within an unsupportive peer group. It is important to do what you can as a parent to reduce these risks by encouraging their more supportive friendships which are a good influence. It is also important to explore how they can respond to difficult situations. For example, you could ask them how they might say “No” if another teenager offered them a lift home when they were drinking. Your aim is to build the range of good strategies they can draw upon in these difficult situations.

Keep connected to your teenager
Each teenager is different and the early warning signals that a teenager might be in distress vary greatly. The key as a parent is to stay connected and tuned in so you can notice any changes that indicate problems such as or becoming cut off or uncommunicative or appearing under stress, or having friendship or relationship problems and so on. Then you can take steps to reach out and support them.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, January 2013.  John writes in The Irish Newspaper Health+ every Tuesday.