Parents & Educators
Suicide, a word that many of us are afraid to use, touches the lives of many youth in Canada today, directly or indirectly. In fact, suicide is one of the leading causes of death among young people, second only to motor vehicle accidents. With suicide affecting so many of our youth, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and to talk openly about it.
Suicide is preventable. Not only are there visible warning signs, most suicide attempts are made after a person has hinted at their plans. Sometimes, when a person talks about suicide or makes an attempt to commit suicide, others see it as attention-seeking behaviour. In truth, these behaviours should be taken for what they are—serious acts of a person in crisis. Some of the common warning signs are:
- Talking about or threatening suicide, such as:
- “I want to die”
- “I hate myself”
- “There’s no point in living”
- “It’s just not worth it anymore”
- “The world would be better off without me:
- “No one cares about me”
- “I can’t take it anymore”
- A preoccupation with death, dying, and suicide. Many people who are suicidal will express their feelings, even if they don’t put them to words. Artwork and music are two other ways to tap into what someone is feeling.
- A previous suicide attempt
- Hoarding pills or other medication, or describing methods for committing suicide
- Giving away meaningful or valued possessions
In most cases, suicidal feelings and attempts do not happen overnight. Usually, it’s a gradual process that often begins with depression. Some of the signs of depression are:
- Loss of interest in friends, school, sports, and other favourite activities
- Neglect in hygiene or personal appearance
- Sleeping a lot or very little
- Eating a lot or very little
- Emotional outbursts, especially anger and irritability, as well as crying jags
- Heavy use of alcohol or drugs
Some people struggle with depression for medical reasons. For others, a downward dip can be triggered by a traumatic life event, such as:
- Loss of a friend or family member, especially to suicide
- Conflicting feelings or a sense of shame about sexual orientation
- Breakup of a dating relationship
- Big changes in friendships (which can be related to bullying)
- Life changes, such as moving to a new city or switching schools
- Illness or disability
What can I do?
Talk. Talk openly and honestly; talk for as long as it takes for your child to open up. Remember, talking about suicide does not increase any risk for your child—it won’t put ideas into their head. Talking gets the problem out in the open and lessens stress and tension. Here are some other good reasons to talk:
- It lessens the stigma of suicide, making it seems less taboo
- Talking frames crisis as something that is both common and surmountable
- Talking sends a clear message to your child that you have the strength and courage to talk about challenging or upsetting topics
- It gives your child confidence that they can rely on you in their darkest hour
- Frank, calm, supportive discussion about suicide can be very grounding for a youth in crisis
What do I say?
If you notice signs of depression or suicide in your child, it’s time to talk. The conversation doesn’t have to be as hard as you might think. Here are some tips:
- Be calm, and try not to rush the conversation
- Don’t make accusations; do not judge
- You may want to start by mentioning changes in their behaviour. For example, “I’ve noticed you’re spending a lot of time in your room lately. Is something bothering you?”
- Be direct. Ask your child if they are thinking about suicide. For example, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” or “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
- Find out if they have a plan. Ask, “How are you planning to do it?” “When are you planning to do it?” and “Do you have what you need to do it?” The more detailed the plan, the higher the risk.
- Listen and try not to interrupt. Let your child do the talking. Also, don’t fill in all of the spaces of the conversation—moments of silence give your child a chance to open up more.
- Do not get angry
- Avoid saying things like, “What do you have to be depressed about? You get everything you want.” Do not minimize your child’s suffering by saying, “It will pass, just hang in there,” or “Life isn’t fair.”
If your child is suicidal
Make an appointment with your family doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor should be able to refer you to a counsellor in your area. Your child has to be comfortable talking to the counsellor, so keep looking if it isn’t a perfect fit right away. The counsellors at Kids Help Phone are also always here to speak to your child: 1-800-668-6868 or kidshelpphone.ca.
If your child has a plan to commit suicide
Most important of all, do not leave the child alone. Make an appointment with your family doctor as soon as possible. If your doctor is unavailable, take your child to Emergency at your local hospital.
What else can I do?
Show your love and support. It’s really important that your child knows how much you love them and are there for them.
- People having suicidal thoughts often feel that they are a burden to others. Explain the importance they have in your life and explain how devastating it would be to lose them. It’s especially important to do this without making your child feel guilty. Don’t say, “It would destroy the family if we lost you.” Try something like this instead:
- “You bring so much to this family”
- “We love you very much”
- “No one makes us laugh/smile/etc. the way you do.”
- Tell your child that you will help them through this
- Highlight the contributions they make to your family as well as to others around them. You might do this by pointing to special achievements, such as being on the swim/soccer/baseball team, academic awards, or even special personality traits like being funny, having a great laugh, being very huggable, etc.
- Let them know that it’s okay to feel sad and that you feel sad sometimes too
Help is out there
Having a child disclose suicidal thoughts can be incredibly distressing. Fear, sadness, guilt, anger, and helplessness are normal feelings in response to this sort of news. Know that it’s okay to be distressed, but you have to try not to let your feelings overshadow what your child is going through. It’s common for parents to feel responsible if their child is suicidal, as though it’s somehow their fault. It’s not. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself permission to feel. Maybe you aren’t a perfect parent, but no one is.
- Get the support you need. Connect with friends, other family members, a counsellor, neighbour, or anyone else who you can talk to. Don’t try to shoulder this on your own. Talking about it will help you.
- Ask for help with keeping the household running. Delegate tasks like meal preparation, laundry, babysitting, and anything else that will help lighten your load.
- Take care of yourself. Eat regular, healthy meals, get enough sleep, exercise, and make time to relax.
- Fill your doctor in on what’s going on. Your doctor can prescribe treatment to help you through this stressful time, refer you to a counsellor, or connect you with other support services in your community.
Canadian Mental Health Association: Youth and suicide
Kidshealth.org: About teen suicide
Youth Suicide Prevention: Resources for parents and caregivers