I’ve counselled children and young people for 15 years. While I also counsel adults, my energy regarding suicide goes out to young people and children. Visiting schools and speaking with parents, some of them clients, I’m often asked how to support children and young people when a parent or other key relative attempts or dies by suicide, and how to prevent young people and children from attempting suicide. While the government’s attention is now on hospitals (and yes, government needs to focus some where specific) what about support for front line people who are with young people every day: teachers and parents or other carers?
What ever the statistics on young people and young people – and the Samaritans has a useful report on how to understand the many complex statistics surrounding suicide [ref]Samaritans Suicide Statistics Report 2014[/ref] – the best way to minimize the risk of suicide is to know the myths and risk factors and to recognize the warning signs of suicide.
Take these signs seriously.
Know how to respond to them.
By taking a few moments to read this article, YOU could save someone’s life.
Common Misconceptions about Suicide
The following statements are false, followed by a truthful statement.
People who talk about suicide won’t really do it.
Almost everyone who commits or attempts suicide has given some clue or warning. We need to take suicide threats seriously. Statements like “you’ll be sorry when I’m dead,” “I can’t see any way out,” — no matter how casually or jokingly said may indicate serious suicidal feelings. The feelings may, or maynot, turn into an attempt.
Anyone who tries to kill him/herself must be crazy.
Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane. They are upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing. Extreme distress and emotional pain are not necessarily signs of mental illness.
If a person is determined to kill him/herself, nothing is going to stop them.
Even the most severely depressed person has mixed feelings about death, wavering until the very last moment between wanting to live and wanting to die. Most suicidal people do not want death; they want the pain to stop. The impulse to end it all, however overpowering, does not last forever.
People who commit suicide are people who were unwilling to seek help.
Studies of suicide victims have shown that more than half had sought medical help in the six months prior to their deaths.
Talking about suicide may give someone the idea.
You don’t give a suicidal person morbid ideas by talking about suicide. The opposite is true—bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do.
Risk factors for suicide
The teenage years can be emotionally turbulent and stressful in themselves. Teenagers face pressures to succeed and fit in. They may struggle with self-esteem issues, self-doubt, and feelings of alienation. For some, this leads to suicide. Depression is also a major risk factor for teen suicide.
Some possible risk factors for teenage suicide include a combination of the following:
- has a mental illness
- been a victim of violence, bullying or sexual abuse
- recently experienced or is going through a traumatic event
- going through a major life change
- is being judged or shamed
- has no sense of their own identity
- friends or family don’t support their sexuality or identity.
- has a serious physical illness
- lacks a support network, no connection with family, friends or community
- has an intimidating, unsettling social or school environment
- bereaved of a friend or relative to suicide
- feeling lack of control in their life
- has attempted suicide before
Suicide warnings among teenagers
We’re told someone who is going to attempt suicide gives warning signs but they’re often missed. If we know a friend or relative who is living out some of these risk factors described above, what are the warning signs?
It’s usually a combination of some of the following signs, but any one of these could be an indication that the young person needs extra support with something going on in their lives. Offering support sooner rather than later may even help prevent a suicide attempt.
Be aware of any of the following in a young person or child:
- Change in eating and sleeping habits
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities
- Violent or rebellious behaviour, running away
- Drug and alcohol use
- Unusual neglect of personal appearance
- Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating, or a decline in their ususal quality of school work
- Frequent complaints about physical symptoms, often related to emotions, such as stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
- Not tolerating praise or rewards
What to do to prevent a suicide attempt
Having observed one or more of the behaviours listed above in a friend or relative whose experienced falls within in the risk factors, what do we do? As the last myth above clarifies: talk with the young person and take that person seriously.
Don’t be afraid to approach a friend or relative who you think isn’t coping. Just showing that you care will be a positive step towards supporting them. You don’t have to be able to solve their problems but if you feel you can, offer support and encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling. Actively listen to what they are saying, even if it really difficult for you to hear their pain, let them say what they need to say. Ask direct questions and don’t be afraid of frank discussions. Don’t attempt to argue him or her out of committing suicide. Rather, let the person know that you care and are listening. Avoid statements like: “You have so much to live for.” Even if you think that, they don’t feel it at that moment.
Know that many people do want a chance to talk but worry they may be a burden to those around them.
Look after yourself, too
Supporting a friend or relative in distress can be distressing in itself. If you’re helping someone who feels suicidal, make sure you take care of yourself as well. If you need to talk about how you are feeling, or you need further support to help the suicidal person and don’t have someone you feel safe speaking with, contact:
Childline: 0800 1111 or visit their website for online chat and lots of other support http://www.childline.org.uk
Samaritans: Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Do note it costs to call them on 08457 90 90 90 * (UK)