Every year, thousands of parents face their greatest fear: their child commits suicide. And scores of others worry if their child is contemplating it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say suicide is the third leading cause of death in ages 15 to 24. It’s the fourth leading cause of death of kids age 10 to 14. One in 12 teens has attempted suicide, according to the CDC, and the National Institute of Mental Health believes as many as 25 suicides are attempted for each one that is completed.
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All those numbers add up to significant odds that a parent’s life will in some way be touched by suicide. And experts say the best way to reduce the odds your family will endure the pain and grief of suicide is knowing the warning signs and being prepared to act if you spot them.
In most instances, a child exhibits one—often several—signs they’re in trouble, says Carole Lieberman, M.D., a psychiatrist and bestselling author.
Lieberman says some of the most common signs include:
- A prolonged or extreme sad mood
- Erratic behavior
- Drug or alcohol use
- Isolation. Always wanting to be alone in their room, withdrawing from family or friends.
- Refusal to participate in activities they used to enjoy
- A dip in grades
- Listening to dark music or watching dark movies, videos, TV
- Outbursts of anger
- Giving away possessions
- Preoccupation with death that could include talking about or asking questions about death, Internet searches about death and related topics.
Some of these signs are more worrisome than others.
“There could be several different reasons for poor grades. So, this in itself doesn’t mean suicide is imminent,” says Lieberman. “The more signs a child demonstrates, the more serious the problem is, but even one sign can be sufficient warning.”
“Preoccupation with death is a more serious sign and cause to intervene,” she adds.
A significant loss such as a break up, rejection or devastating grade also requires a parent keep a close eye on a child as these factors may raise the risk of suicide, says Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, PLLC, a licensed clinical psychologist having practiced in Washington, D.C., for nearly 20 years.
“Whenever your child has a loss, it is critical to pay close attention to his or her behavior and mood,” says Clark.
Other risk factors believed to increase the risk for suicide are depression or bipolar disorder, a history of suicidal behavior, a family history of suicide or losing a friend to suicide, says Clark. “If your child has been exposed to or involved in any of these situations, their risk is higher.”
Spring Into Action
If you notice any of the warning signs or are concerned about any behavior your child displays, take action. You can start by talking to your child about his mood or the signs you’ve noticed.
Clark cautions parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask their child whether they have thought about suicide. “Many people think asking such questions will put thoughts in the head of a depressed person and could make them suicidal. In fact, asking about suicidal thoughts does the opposite and helps a person who is suicidal feel understood, and helps a depressed person see that they could be feeling a lot worse,” she says.
“Listen to your child, and hear his cries for help. Is he saying he feels overwhelmed, unable to cope, devastated? Have your child’s friends alerted you that they are worried about your child? Most people reach out for help when they feel suicidal,” says Clark.
No matter how scary or upsetting the news from your child, Clark stresses the importance of presenting a strong, supportive front.
“The most important thing you can do is take your child’s concerns very seriously. Reassure him that you’ll be with him as he gets help, and tell him how much you love him and how you will help him get through this. Stress that it absolutely will get better,” she says.
Should You Head to the ER?
Children who express a realistic and lethal plan for suicide are high risk, says Clark. And they may require immediate intervention found via the ER.
“If your child says he really doesn’t know how he would commit suicide, but just wishes it would happen to end pain, he is, in a sense, telling you he doesn’t really have a plan,” adds Clark. While this requires professional attention from a mental health expert, it may not require a call to 911.
“On the other hand, if your child tells you he has looked up on the Internet the most painless way to do it and has secured the supplies to do so, he is telling you clearly that he has a plan and needs immediate evaluation and attention. Having a plan is a dangerous sign, and a parent should try to help their child be willing to go to the hospital to stay safe, or call the police to do so,” says Clark.
Clark stresses that any parent who believes their child is in immediate danger should not hesitate to call 911 or go immediately to the ER if the child is willing to go voluntarily.
Don’t Worry About Overreacting
“A parent should always be concerned about their child’s well-being even if the child is demonstrating only one sign of possible suicide,” says Lieberman. “It may not mean that suicide is imminent, but it does mean that the child is having a problem and needs help.”
And if your child admits to having a plan for suicide, is having suicidal thoughts or has threatened to harm himself, you will never regret reacting and calling 911 or seeking help.
“There’s no such thing as overreacting when you suspect a person may be suicidal,” says Clark. “The only real risk is under reacting.”
To learn more about how to help your child if you suspect he is considering suicide, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.