Q. A 16-year-old boy in my son’s school took his own life a few months ago. This was a big tragedy in the school and the local area, and we were all upset about it. My son (also 16) was particularly upset on the day of the funeral. He spoke openly about how shocked he was and that nobody knew that the boy was depressed. I think collectively they were upset as a group.
Now, three months on, my son does not talk much about what happened. Recently, he has become very closed off and I wonder if he is a bit down himself. I now find myself worried that he might do something stupid or attempt suicide himself – it is a terrible thought to have. I don’t want to raise it directly with him in case I put ideas in his head. Any time I ask how he is doing, he just says, “all right”, and fobs me off. I don’t know what to do to make sure he is okay.
A. Sadly, suicide among young people is not that rare and it is on the increase in recent times. Suicide is a tragic event, not just for the individual and their immediate family but also for a much wider community. The devastation and upset of a suicide ripples out to wider family members, friends, acquaintances, work colleagues or school friends and to the community at large.
Aside from the devastation and grief, a suicide can have a destabilising effect and can provoke some people to become depressed and/or to question their own reasons for living. Parents can become concerned about their own children and worry about how they are affected.
It is easy to worry that if one young person took the step of ending their life (especially if there were no obvious reasons) that your own child might do something similar. This is a very upsetting thought to have, but it is also something to take seriously and to think through how best to respond. Young people are influenced by each other and, tragically, some communities can experience more than one suicide which may be indirectly related to one another.
However, schools and communities can do a lot to respond constructively and to mitigate such negative effects, for example by providing students with time to debrief and talk about their feelings, and by making counselling available and easy to access.
Schools are also well placed to deliver educational mental health programmes to the students on managing stress, seeking help and how to support fellow students in need. You might want to contact your son’s school as a source of support and advice as to how to help your son. Certainly, the more parents are included in the school’s constructive response to a suicide, the more effective it is likely to be.
There is a lot you can do personally to ensure your son’s own wellbeing. The key is to keep open the lines of communication with him and to ensure he is well supported in his peer group and in school. It was a good thing that he was able to share his feelings of upset with you in the days after his friend died and this is an important safety factor. The fact that he is not talking much now may not necessarily be a sign of depression and could be in the context of becoming a private teenager, more likely to share his feeling with peers rather than parents.
However, as a parent, it is still important to periodically check in and give him the opportunity to talk about how he is feeling in general, and specifically to share his feelings about the suicide of his friend. The opportunity to talk might come up naturally if there is some reference to his friend in conversation, or you might raise the subject directly at a good time when you are alone by saying something such as, “It is now three months since your friend died and I was just wondering how you are feeling about it all.”
If it is hard for him to talk initially, you can share some general observations – “I think a lot of people in the school are still upset” – or ask some gentle questions – “Are people still talking in school about it?” or “How are his family coping, do you think?” – before you ask him how he is specifically feeling.
If you are worried, it is important to ask him if he is feeling down and, in particular, whether his friend’s suicide has ever caused him to consider something similar. This is indeed a delicate question that needs to be timed well. Rather than being vague and saying something such as, “You wouldn’t do anything stupid, would you?” when you ask this question, it is important to be direct and specific. For example, you could say something such as, “When someone takes their own life, a lot of people think about doing it themselves . . . has this ever been something to cross your mind?”
Even if he says he is not particularly depressed (which is quite likely), it is important to give him the message that you are there to listen if he is ever troubled or worried about anything. It can also be useful to explore with him how he might cope if he was very stressed or low in the future. Helping young people think of coping strategies in advance of an upset (who they would call, what friends they would rely on, what positive action they would take, and so on) can help them be safer in the future.
As parents, it is very upsetting to be worried about your son’s safety in this way and I would suggest that you seek support for yourself as a priority. You can do this informally by contacting the other parents of young people in your son’s peer group who have also gone through this tragedy and who might share your experience. You should also get support by contacting your son’s school or any of the organisations suggested above, all of which provide assistance to concerned family members.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, January 2013. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.