Suicide is not an enjoyable topic of discussion for anyone. However, removing the stigma around suicide discussions is key to real progress. According to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) and National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), suicide is the second leading cause of death in children ages 10-24. Suicide is no longer an adult topic – it’s a struggle faced by people of all ages. 

It’s important to note that bringing up the subject of suicide is not going to cause suicide. If you have that gut feeling and believe that talking to your child about suicide is necessary, don’t hesitate. Ask the child directly, “Are you thinking about suicide?” and use the word suicide. 

Pretending the issue doesn’t exist, or dismissing it as a possibility, can be dangerous when there is the chance of suicide. Talking to children will give your child support, showing them you’re listening and fostering an honest relationship. You can assure your child that they’re not handling it alone; rather, this is an issue you can handle together. 

What causes suicidal thoughts in children?

As with many mental health struggles, there is no one cause. Suicidal thoughts, while commonly associated with depression, don’t always accompany depression. And depression isn’t always a precursor to suicide. While children struggling with depression can be more susceptible to suicidal thoughts, it is comforting to note that not all children battling depression are guaranteed to battle suicidal thoughts as well. 

In addition, there are other incidents with the potential to introduce suicidal thoughts:

  • A personal history of mental disorders or substance abuse 
  • A family history of mental disorders, substance abuse or suicide 
  • The recent loss of a friend, peer, family member or hero (mentor, celebrity, etc.) to suicide
  • Being the victim of aggression, threats and/or bullying/cyberbullying
  • Experiences of abuse, physical, verbal or sexual  

Again, not all of these causes will result in suicide, but if your child has experienced any of these situations before and is also displaying warning signs, consider reaching out to a specialist to guide both you and your child through this time. 

Warning signs

While adults may show direct warning signs, children are more likely to show indirect signs if they struggle with suicidal thoughts. 

  • Listen for subtle comments – Children might express a desire to “go away” or display hopelessness of the future (“You won’t need to worry about me anymore.” “It would/will be better if I’m not here.”) Additionally, they may make self-harm statements in conversation or on social media, such as “I wish I were dead.”
  • Watch for a fascination with death or suicide – You might notice a preoccupation with the concept of death or suicide in your child. It may be displayed on the clothes or accessories they wear; the tv shows, music, websites and/or social media pages they watch and interact with; they might write, draw or have conversations about it; it might show up in homework assignments. 
  • Don’t ignore personality changes – Children contemplating suicide will experience shifts in personality, suddenly becoming withdrawn and quiet when they previously displayed exuberance or were outgoing. They may become volatile, angry and aggressive, suddenly lashing out in uncharacteristic ways. 
  • Pay attention to withdrawal – A major warning sign is withdrawal from people and places. Children will stop wanting to spend time with friends and family and may become disinterested in social events. Academic performance may begin to drop. Lack of interest in extracurriculars and hobbies may also be a warning sign if your child’s mind is preoccupied elsewhere. 

In addition, children may have trouble eating or sleeping, show increased anxiety or stress, partake in reckless behavior, and draft a will/give away treasured possessions. 

Don’t wait 

As a parent, trust your gut. If you are seeing warning signs and suspect immediate danger, call 911 or consult your professional healthcare provider today. Do not be afraid to seek medical assistance before the situation escalates beyond anyone’s control. Admitting that your child needs help in ways you can’t provide doesn’t mean you’ve failed in your parental duties. It means quite the opposite, in fact: it means that parents are committed to helping children seek the help they need.