What Your Teen Wants to Know About Suicide & What You, as a Parent, Should Say
If you have a middle or high school student in Oak Park or nearby schools, chances are that they have had suicide prevention training at school.
Due to a nationwide push to increase awareness of suicidality in teens, most schools incorporate multiple strategies to address suicide and mental health concerns.
Including suicide prevention weeks hosting presentations on suicide warning signs, and resources available in the area.
Go Guardian software on school-issued computers that alerts school staff of any online activity that may indicate suicidal ideation or mental health concerns, and offers suggestions on how best to address the concerns.
And forms that can be filled out regularly in health class to request to speak to a social worker onsite therapist.
These strategies increase awareness, provide powerful knowledge, encourage communication, and diminish stigma and isolation.
But there is a hole in the training that is often missed, and our youth are asking for answers.
This past fall I was honored to share a presentation regarding the differences between non suicidal self harm and suicidal ideation to students and staff at Riverside Brookfield High School.
I prepared myself for some of the questions the students might ask, but was surprised by the one question they were overwhelmingly most curious about.
These students most wanted to know what they should do when a friend expresses suicidal ideation to them, typically via social media late at night or posts a Snapchat hinting at suicide.
They knew the facts and statistics.
They were attending to become better advocates for their peers.
The parent in me was freaking out knowing that even though I talk about suicide everyday at work, and talk to my own kids about the risks, warning signs, and resources - I had never adequately prepared them on what to do when they are in this situation.
It is phenomenal that our youth are being educated in this way at school, but as parents we need to be educated on how best to support them in their advocacy.
So here is what I told the students at my talk, and what I offer you to tell your own kids:
1. Break the Trust
Often times suicidal youth don’t know who to tell that they are having these thoughts, and end up telling their closest friends. They may follow up the disclosure with a stinging “but.. Please don’t tell anyone!” That friend is then stuck deciding between getting help from an adult or breaking the trust.
Tell your kids that trust needs to be broken in this situation- it’s vital that they share this information to keep their friend safe. The trust doesn’t need to be completely shattered though- they can express their concern without having to break all trust of the friendship.
2. Involve Trusted & Trained Adults
Instruct your child to notify a trusted adult ASAP! Tell them to wake you up if you’re asleep or call you if you’re not together. It’s ok if you don’t know exactly what to do in that moment: but praise your child for involving an adult and advocating for their friend. If you know the child in crisis’ parent’s information contact them with your concerns. When in doubt contact the police or the local crisis line for support. These trusted and trained adults can help provide the youth with the follow-up support they need through a therapist or a school social worker.
3. Answer The Cry
Some people might believe that the increase in suicide related discussion with youth encourages them to use suicidal statements too freely. This is an important matter, that is best addressed by taking every statement seriously. Even though you or your child may not believe this youth is truly at risk, and they may be just doing it for attention it is vital that they are offered the support. Regardless of if it is a cry for attention or a cry for help, it is important that the cry be answered. You are not expected to determine the validity of the statements, rather your role is crucial to linking to the professionals who can better assess the risk
Encourage your youth to reach out to that person posting the cryptic Snapchat post that may or may not be suicidal. Encourage them to check in with them and offer support, rather than thinking someone closer to them will do it. This is the small yet mighty way that we can all become better advocates for mental health- don’t shy away.
As parents we need to anticipate these situations.
Make a plan with your teen regarding what they should do, and what you will do to help them.
Having the conversation ahead of time can eliminate the stigma and concern that may keep them silent.
If you need further support on how to best support your teen, if you’re interested in starting counseling services, or if you’re interested in having Tina come talk to you or a group about assessing for and preventing teen suicide, please contact Tina@EmpowerFamilyTherapy.com