The death of a child is unimaginable to any parent, but this is a tragedy that is becoming increasingly common among adolescents. It is confronting to note that in 2020, suicide represented 31% of all deaths in young people aged 15–17 years in Australia. We do not always need cues such as World Suicide Prevention Day to remind us that the mental health of our youth is being affected, pushed along by factors like the pandemic. We must continue asking why and what we can do about it.
There are multiple transitions that come with adolescence, increasing emotional reactivity and interpersonal stress. In fact, there are studies that point to interpersonal difficulties being one of the main motivators for suicidal attempts among adolescents. This may include dysfunction within families, difficulty coping, changes in relationships, bullying, or abuse. Suicide among adolescents can be an impulsive act, with the activation of the ‘upstairs brain’, as described by Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson in their book ‘The Whole Brain Child‘. In the downstairs brain, there is no reasoning that takes place- it is where one’s fight or flight response resides. So when an adolescent experiences depression, anxiety, increased stress, rejection, neglect (among many other factors), it increases the likelihood that they will respond with the instinctive and impulsive downstairs brain.
Not being a professional does not imply that you cannot know what to look out for and how to respond to the adolescent in your life who might be talking about death.
What are some warning signs?
a) Expressions of feeling helpless, hopeless or worthless- this might indicate underlying depression that needs to be addressed.
b) Talking about suicide or death/ hints about not being around- it is not normal to hear adolescents say “I want to kill myself”. Take these expressions seriously and do not minimize them.
c) Engaging in risky or self-destructive behaviour- this may include reckless driving, spending, self-harm and similar impulsive acts.
d) Losing desire and interest in things they used to enjoy- a slow but gradual withdrawal from people and activities that used to bring them pleasure.
e) Agitation, restlessness, anxiety- this might involve having trouble sleeping, concentrating at school or having emotional ‘outbursts’.
What increases risk?
- A history of death by suicide in the family
- Prior attempts to hurt themselves or end their lives
- Having a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression
- A recent loss
- Ongoing stressors- bullying, breakups, rejection, abuse.
- Lack of social and peer support
- Struggles with gender identity/sexuality
What can I do as a parent?
Managing your own fears and apprehensions is the first step in being able to address the issue with your teen. The topic of suicide is a confronting one, and you might want to speak with someone first to address your concerns before being able to provide room for your child.
It is a myth that talking about suicide ‘puts the idea’ into your child’s mind. Initiating the conversation can be a relief for them, as they realize that their parent/carer can handle sensitive topics. Ask them directly about whether they have thoughts of taking their life. Try to remain level-headed and calm, as these conversations can take a rather emotional turn.
Be their judgment-free zone as you engage with them. Acknowledge their pain. Take their concerns seriously. Do not minimize their struggles. “It sounds like you’re feeling really anxious” communicates more empathy than “It will all be fine, don’t worry about it”. As a parent, your instinct might be to ‘fix’ the situation, but your adolescent just wants to feel validated.
Encourage them to seek help by brainstorming the options available to them. This might involve someone who has helped them in the past, their GP or a mental health professional. Try to keep away from advice-giving mode, and let your teen feel part of the process.
Keep your teen safe if you deem the risk to be imminent/high. Stay with them if they have expressed clear suicidal intent and urges. Go through a safety plan with them and contact emergency services if required. Your first priority is to ensure that they are in a safe environment. Other options include Lifeline 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 and Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.
As a parent, there is no ‘perfect’ way to respond. However, knowing some of these pointers might help move you in the direction of being able to respond with empathy, recognizing that your adolescent is probably in pain and desires to be heard.
If you or your adolescent is keen to receive more support, our enquiry form is the first step in being able to access professional help. Our website also has other blogs that might provide further insight into related topics.
Monica Jacob (MPhil Clin Psych, MSc Clin Psych, BSc Psych) is a psychologist who values trust, empathy, respect, warmth, and creativity in the therapy room and seeks to collaboratively help her clients lead more meaningful, enriched lives. Monica is passionate about understanding each individual’s unique journey and walking alongside them. She previously worked in hospital settings as part of a multidisciplinary team and provided psychotherapy to clients with various mental health needs in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Her clinical experience includes working with individuals experiencing mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and adjustment difficulties. Monica is dedicated to improving her expertise and knowledge by receiving regular supervision and reviewing research to provide the best possible support to her clients.