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what to say to a child who may be thinking of suicide

Two scripts on how a parent can ask a child about suicide

These are examples of two conversations, one with a high school student and a parent and then one with a college student and a parent. While it’s not likely it would go just like this, it is an example of how you ask open-ended questions, not judge, listen with empathy and remain calm, and figure out next step.

The bottom line, is trust your gut and do not freak out if your child admits to feeling suicidal. Take a deep breath, and be thankful they are there right now with you on the phone or in person. And you are qualified if you can listen.

It’s just a way of giving you the words to say. We never know what goes on inside someone else’s head so this conversation is important.

Fact: Talking about suicide does not plant the idea in their head!

Here are the steps:

  1. Engage in private conversation
  2. Listen with empathy. No fixing!
  3. Ask, “Are you thinking of suicide?”
  4. Figure out the next steps including professional help.

Next steps is usually figuring out the severity of suicide risk. This varies greatly but here in Richmond, Virginia, I’d call Richmond Behavioural health for a suicide risk assessment. They use this scale called the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale.

The ER is usually not the first resort. And finding support for both you and your child is important. If your child is imminently planning a suicide attempt, you should call 911 or immediately take them to an emergency room or psychiatric crisis center. Do not leave them alone. If your child’s suicidal episode is less severe, you may just schedule an appointment with a mental health professional, like a therapist or psychiatrist. Again, counties often have urgent and emergency resources to help you figure out the next steps.

Conversation with a parent with a high school student.

This is a conversation with a child feeling overwhelmed. Remember to meet them where they are and if that’s in despair, that’s where you go.

Casey: I. am so overwhelmed. And I can’t get all my work done. There is so much to know and learn and figure out.  All this is getting to me. I just can’t do this anymore.

Parent: What do you mean you can’t do this anymore? Can you explain? I’m listening.

Casey: Like I don’t care anymore or don’t want to be here anymore. Everything is hard. Just getting out of bed is hard. I don’t care about anything. . . .

Parent: I need to ask you a specific question. When people say “I can’t do this anymore,” and they feel overwhelmed, they are often struggling with thoughts of suicide? Are you thinking about suicide?

Casey: Ummmm. . .I think. I mean I don’t know. I have these dark periods and then they just go away and then I don’t want to hurt myself and I feel fine. But sometimes I do want to and I don’t feel like I have control, especially late at night when I can’t sleep. I feel so useless.

Parent: That must feel so scary.

Casey: It is. I know you are so proud of me and now you think I’m weak.

Parent: I couldn’t be more proud of you than I am right now. I know that was hard to tell and I’m so grateful you did. We are going to work together to help you, OK?

Casey: You’re not going to call an ambulance, are you?

Parent:  No honey, we are not calling an ambulance because you are safe right now. No limbs are falling off? You’re not having a heart attack? So we don’t need an ambulance. But we do need help and I’m with you on this, OK?

Casey: OK. But I do feel better right now. . . .I mean it probably won’t come back.

Parent: You may be right. But let’s be sure. We need to talk and then get some help on next steps. I need to know you are safe from suicide. No secrets. And we are in this together, OK?

Casey: What do we do?

Parent: I don’t know the next steps but there is a county hotline to call and we can do that together. You can tell them what you told me.  OK?

Casey: I can do that.  But I am scared.

Parent: I am too. But I’m not going to freak out. Let’s take a deep breath and let’s do this.

Do you see where the parent validated the teen’s decision to tell by saying “I couldn’t be more proud of you?” And the parent also asked directly about suicide. It’s uncomfortable but the only way you find out if someone is suicidal is to ask directly, “Are you thinking of suicide?” Here is a link to the validated ASQ suicide screening tool from NIMH. You can use this tool. And you’ll also notice that nowhere in either of these conversations do I have the phrase, “You have to much to live for!” Because that’s not where they are right now.

——————————–

Conversation with a Child at college with a Parent

This is a phone conversation with a child feeling overwhelmed at college.

Casey: Hi mom and dad. I…I.. am so overwhelmed. And I can’t get all my work done. There is so much to know and learn and figure out.  All this is getting to me. I just can’t do this anymore.

Parent: What do you mean you can’t do this anymore? Can you explain? I’m listening.

Casey: Like I don’t care anymore or don’t want to be here anymore. Everything is hard. Just getting out of bed is hard. I don’t care about anything. . . .

Parent: I will need to ask you a specific question. When people say “I can’t do this anymore,” and they feel overwhelmed, they are often struggling with thoughts of suicide? Are you thinking about suicide?

Casey: Ummmm. . .I think. I mean I don’t know. I have these dark periods and then they just go away and then I don’t want to hurt myself and I feel fine. But sometimes I do want to and I don’t feel like I have control, especially late at night when I can’t sleep. I feel so useless.

Parent: That must feel so scary.

Casey: It is. I know you are so proud of me and now think I’m weak.

Parent: I couldn’t be more proud of you than I am right now. I know that was hard to tell and I’m so grateful you did. We are going to work together to help you, OK?

Casey: You’re not going to call an ambulance, are you?

Parent:  No honey, we are not calling an ambulance right now because you are on the phone with me and safe right now. No limbs are falling off? You’re not having a heart attack? So we don’t need an ambulance. But we do need help and I’m with you on this, OK?

Casey: OK. But I do feel better right now. . . .I mean it probably won’t come back.

Parent: You may be right. But let’s be sure. We need to talk and then get some help on next steps. I need to know you are safe from suicide. No secrets. And we are in this together, OK?

Casey: OK, yeah. What do we do?

Parent: I want you to stay on the line with me right now. Is your RA in or a friend on your hall? Someone you trust?

Casey: My RA is in.

Parent: Can you put me on speaker and we talk with her? I’m thinking she can connect you with campus mental health center near your dorm.

Signs your child might be at risk

The #1 sign to watch out for in terms of suicide risk is hopelessness.

normal teen behavior or red flag
Normal teen angst or red flags?
how do kids thinking of suicide behave
Behavior red flags that someone might be at risk for suicide
what do teens thinking of suicide say
What those thinking of suicide might say

USA 988
USA Crisis Text 741-741
USA Crisis Line for LGBTQ Youth 1-866-488-7386
USA Crisis Text for LGBTQ Youth 678-678
USA TransLifeline 1-833-456-4566
USA Suicide Prevention Lifeline & Chat for the Deaf or Hearing impaired. Or dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255
United Kingdom Samaritans 116 123
Australia Crisis Line 13 11 14
Canada Crisis Line 1-833-456-4566
Canada TransLifeline 877-330-6366
International suicide hotlines

prevent suicide in our chilldren

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While nothing is guaranteed, these tips will help lower the risk. Because knowing what to say, and how to respond helps parents and caregivers have tough conversations with more clarity and confidence.

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Other Helpful Articles and Resources including a support group locator for families:

Published by

Anne Moss Rogers

I am an emotionally naked mental health speaker, and author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind and co-author with Kim O'Brien PhD, LICSW of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher's Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk. I raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost my younger son, Charles to addiction and suicide on June 5, 2015. I help people foster a culture of connection to prevent suicide, reduce substance misuse and find life after loss. My motivational mental health keynotes, training and workshop topics include suicide prevention, addiction, mental illness, anxiety, coping strategies/resilience, and grief. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now the legacy I try and carry forward in my son's memory. Mental Health Speakers Website. Trained in ASIST and trainer for the evidence-based 4-hour training for everyone called safeTALK.

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