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Expert Advice: Talking About Suicide with Children and Teens

May 24, 2019

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10 – 24. In all ages, the occasion of suicide provides an opportunity for education about mental health support resources, depression and suicide prevention. Here are some age-appropriate tips for discussing suicide with children and teens from Greg Adams, LCSW, coordinator of the Center for Good Mourning at Arkansas Children’s.

Ages 5-10 

  • Fortunately, suicide occurring in this age group is very rare, but it does happen.
  • This age is an excellent time to lay the groundwork that there is nothing that can’t be talked about and handled together.
  • Children will need adult help and guidance to understand the basic nature of suicide: It means a person kills themselves on purpose. It happens when a person’s brain is sick, and the person thinks the only way out of pain is to die. When a suicide happens, it is upsetting for all who knew the person, but we can and will talk about the person and adults will still take care of children.
  • If a child talks about suicide, attempts suicide, has drastic behavior or mood changes, and/or expresses hopelessness about their lives, seek professional help.
  • Medications and firearms in the home should be stored safely and securely to prevent access by children. Safe storage is especially important if a child is struggling emotionally.

Ages 11-14

  • Suicide becomes a greater risk as children enter adolescence.
  • Threats of suicide and expressions of hopelessness should be treated seriously, and professional help should be sought.
  • When worried, parents can ask directly, “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” If yes or if a denial feels false, seek professional help.
  • When worried about the safety or health of a friend or peer, children and teens at this age need encouragement to tell a trusting adult about their concerns. Keeping secrets is not the right thing in life and death situations.
  • Young teens often get their first cell phone. Parents should enter the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Crisis Text Line number, 741741, into every cell phone.

Ages 15-18

  • The guidance presented above becomes even more critical as suicide risk significantly increases in middle and older adolescence.
  • Although suicide risks increases in this age group, in reality, teens are more likely to be exposed to suicide in their parents’ age group than in their age group.
  • Open and nonjudgmental communication between parents and teens is especially helpful at this age. Although teens are increasingly independent, they still need support and input from adults.
  • If a suicide does occur in a teen’s peer group, it is important for the teen to find peer support to grieve and process the loss along with adult support. Grieving the person who died is needed and does not affirm suicide as a good choice.
  • Teens dealing with sexual orientation or gender identity issues are in particular need of family support. Family acceptance and support significantly reduces suicide risk for LGBTQ teens and young adults.

If you or your child has experienced the death of a loved one, the Good Mourning Program is an excellent resource. The program provides support and assistance to bereaved children and families in Arkansas through education, program development, and grief support programs. Call 501-364-7000 or email goodmourning@archildrens.org for more information. Programs of the Center for Good Mourning are provided free-of-charge for families and groups in Arkansas through the generous support of the Arkansas Children's Auxiliary.

For information regarding Inpatient and Outpatient mental health services at Arkansas Children’s, please contact the Behavioral Health Resource Coordinator at 501-364-4411 to determine the appropriate referral.

For a complete listing of behavioral health support services at Arkansas Children's, click here

 

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