Most parents would panic if they discovered that their teenager was experiencing suicidal thoughts. Sometimes teens disclose to a parent when they are feeling depressed or suicidal. Frequently, parents find out about suicidal thoughts indirectly by reading their teen's texts or Facebook posts or hearing about it from their teen's friends, teacher, doctor, or mental health provider. Other parents just "know" when something seems wrong.
Thoughts of suicide, or "suicidal ideation," are relatively common among teenagers and young adults. A whopping 12.1 percent of American teenagers seriously consider attempting suicide in their lifetime (Nock et al., 2013), and approximately 2 million teens in the United States go on to attempt suicide each year (NAMI).
The following strategies are grounded in clinical experience and research and are designed to help families address teen suicidality together. Parents play a crucial role in teen suicide prevention.
Educate yourself. Know the risk factors for teen suicide. These include: mental health concerns (especially depression); recent loss (e.g., death, divorce, loss of significant relationship); feelings of hopelessness and helplessness; feelings of worthlessness and guilt; previous suicide attempts; alcohol/substance use; impulsive behavior problems; sexual orientation confusion; family history of suicide; history of abuse or neglect; exposure to family violence; social isolation; and bullying.
Be direct. Talk to your teenager directly about suicidal thoughts. Ask her if she has ever wished to be dead or if she has been thinking about hurting herself. Many times, medical attention is not sought after a suicide attempt and parents may not be aware that their teen has attempted suicide. Remember, talking directly and openly about suicide does not increase a person's risk for suicide. For many teenagers, having a trusted adult who knows how they are feeling helps to decrease suicide risk.
Communicate openly and respectfully. If your teenager shares concerns with you about suicidal thoughts, this shows great strength and trust in your relationship. A good rule of thumb is to listen twice as much as you speak. If your teen shares that something private, show empathy and compassion by telling him you know how hard it was for him to share and you'll do whatever you can to help solve the problem. Avoid scolding or shaming your teen for sharing something with you, even if the news is scary or difficult for you to hear. Do not dismiss suicidal thoughts as a threat or a cry for attention. Instead, give him hope and reassurance that he will not feel like this forever and discuss what you can do to help.
Be encouraging. Help your teen come up with a list of coping strategies he can do on his own to help him not act on suicidal thoughts. This may include physical exercise, listening to music, reading, watching a funny movie or TV show, doing something creative (e.g., writing, drawing, taking photos), or doing something relaxing (e.g., deep breathing, meditation). Help him make a list of friends and family members (with phone numbers) and other social opportunities that may help take his mind off things.
Promote safety: Know where your teenager and who she is with is at all times. Be familiar with your teen's friends and their parents. Monitor electronic communication (e.g., Facebook, texting) and be willing to communicate with your teen via text. Keep track of the alcohol coming in and out of your home. While it is common for teenagers to experiment with alcohol and drugs, substance use is a risk factor for teen suicide.
Limit access to lethal means. Restrict access to firearms by storing guns and ammunition separately in locked cabinets. Consider removing guns from the home, at least temporarily, if your teenager is having thoughts of suicide. Use a lock-box for prescription medications and dispose of old and unused medications. Monitor your teen's medication on a daily basis and enlist the school nurse to administer medication during the school day if needed. For your teenager's safety, do not put him in charge of his own medication if there is a concern about suicide.
Create a safety plan. Together with your teen, make a list of trusted family members or friends (with phone numbers) to call in a crisis. Encourage your teen to save the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in her cell phone or carry the number in her wallet. Instruct her to call 911 or go to the nearest Emergency Department if she is feeling suicidal and cannot keep herself safe.
Seek help from a professional. Let teens know that professional help is available and that you support them in getting help. Both you and your teenager should actively participate in your teen's therapy - tell the mental health provider that you want to be involved and receive updates at the end of each session regarding your teen's safety. If the provider is not a good fit, find someone else you and your teenager feel comfortable with. Teach teens that therapy is not a punishment or something to be ashamed of, and discourage others from teasing your teen about going to therapy.
Get support for yourself. Lead by example and engage in healthy ways to manage stress including getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, asking for help from others, and engaging in enjoyable activities. Seek professional help for yourself if needed. It can be overwhelming to find out that your teenager is dealing with suicidal thoughts. As parents, we may feel angry at ourselves or guilty that our teen is struggling so much. Above all else, we feel terrified for their safety and well-being. A qualified mental health professional can provide support to parents and help navigate the sometimes difficult balance between respecting your teen's privacy and keeping them safe.
More information is available from the American Psychological Association.