Suicide rates among America’s youth have been on the rise since 2007—and the pandemic has only made things worse. No parent wants to believe their child might be at risk for suicidal ideation or attempts, but it’s a risk we all need to aware of and vigilantly watch for. If you suspect your child may be at risk for suicidality, there are some things you can do to help lower it.
“It’s just kind of the natural response to being cut off from your social world,” Samar says. “And with an increase in depressive symptoms, we often do see an increase also in suicidal ideation or suicidal thoughts … Everyone was really struggling this past year; even people who had made a good deal of progress before COVID definitely had some setbacks from the experience.”
Listen to your gut if you suspect your teen has suicide thoughts
You are the expert on your child, and you may be the first to sense that something is off. Depressive symptoms can include a change in sleep habits, a sudden lack of interest in activities they once loved, altered eating habits, and sudden fluctuations in weight; all are red flags that they may be struggling. If you see these kinds of changes, it’s time to start watching them more closely and talking to them about how they’re feeling to help determine whether it’s simply typical teenage behavior or they’re experiencing a distinct disruption in mood or thoughts.
“Suicidal thoughts, and especially self harm or suicidal gestures, are not the norm,” Samar says. “So if any of that is brought up, that’s when it’s important to talk to specialists and providers and try to get your child some support.”
Samar says it can be helpful to remember what the experts have seen, both in research and in clinical practice, is that there are three “functions” or causes of suicidal thoughts. One is a desire to escape from internal feelings and thoughts that feel unmanageable. Another is the feeling they are a burden on loved ones. And finally, a history of depression or suicidal ideation increases the likelihood a person will experience them again. So if you suspect they may be having suicidal thoughts, ask them about it.
“What we know is that asking if someone is having suicidal thoughts doesn’t create suicidal thoughts,” Samar says.
And if you do think they may be struggling with this, beyond talking to them and reaching out to mental health professionals for help and support, make sure to reduce access to anything you think they might use to try to harm themselves. You might put medications in your bedroom rather than a bathroom, for example.
Talk to your teen about mental health in general
For all its awfulness, the pandemic did make us all more openly consider—and talk about—our mental health. Never have we needed (or struggled to obtain) self care as much as we have for the past many months, and talking about the importance of caring for our mental health as much as we care for our physical health—and modeling how to do so—is always a good idea. It’s important to recognize, though, that if your teen is struggling, they may already be talking to someone else, such as a friend.
“I find that really problematic because we’ve got teens holding each others’ pain, rather than having adults or trained professionals to help in those situations,” Samar says.
That’s why it’s important to talk to teenagers about how they’re feeling and how their friends are feeling. Parents should always stress that if they have a serious concern about themselves or a peer to share that concern with a trusted adult, even if that adult isn’t you. They could also talk to an aunt or uncle, a school counselor, a teacher, or a coach.
Beyond talking to them about their mental health, Samar says it can also be key to help them find meaning in life, such as through setting longterm goals or a connection to a purpose—those meaningful ties can be a protective factor against suicidality.
But most importantly: Be a good listener
The need to stop and listen to our kids when they talk about topics both big and small seems obvious—and yet, we’re also pretty damn distracted these days. We’re on our phones, we’re checking work messages, we’re trying to figure out what to make for dinner, and our kids know when we’re not fully listening to them.
“Try to put distractions aside and really pay attention, be curious, ask questions, and show that you’re listening,” Samar says. “And that’s not a one-time experience; do that as often as you can in your home environment. If they’re feeling heard, they’re more likely to talk.”
And finally, she says, when they do confide in you, don’t immediately jump into problem-solving mode. Of course you don’t want them to be in pain, but what they probably need most in that moment is validation, and to know they’re being heard and understood.
If you’re thinking about suicide, or are worried about a friend or loved one, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) answers calls 24/7.