A certain number of people kill themselves each year, most of whom were suffering from severe depression. Fortunately, 90% of people with depression are able to live full lives while managing their episodes of depressed mood. Only about 10% will end their lives (this number depends on where a person lives – countries vary in their availability of effective treatments and support for depression, so there is a wide international variability in suicide rates). The pervasive sad mood that comes with depression, as well as the increased tendency among the depressed to obsess on negative thoughts, makes them susceptible to the hopelessness and irrationality characteristic of the suicidal person. People do not “choose” suicide; they fall victim to it as part of their illness.
What are the Implications for Parents?
The link between suicidality and depression should serve as alarm bells when helping our children deal with mental health issues. If we have a loved one who is suffering from depression, it is always prudent to watch out for signs of suicidality. A depressed child is at risk for succumbing to suicidal thoughts; it is up to parents to help prevent this. Vigilant parents can be familiar with the warning signs of suicidality and take action. Moreover, they can do everything possible to get their child the right kind of help. In addition, they can work hard to reduce the other stressors in the child’s life – like school work (negotiate accommodations with the school) and conflict in the home. In fact, when the parents work on their own marriage and parenting skills to increase peace in the home, this can help tremendously.
What are the Warning Signs?
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry these signs are:
- Change in eating and sleeping habits
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and regular activities
- Violent behavior or running away
- Substance abuse
- Neglect of personal grooming
- Personality change
- Difficulty concentrating, persistent boredom
- Drop in academic performance
- Marked personality change
- Frequent complaints about physical symptoms, often related to emotions, such as stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, etc.
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Speaking positively about death or romanticizing dying (“If I died, people will appreciate me more.”)
- Writing about death, dying, or suicide
- Engaging in reckless or dangerous behavior; being injured frequently in accidents
- Giving away or discard favorite possessions
- Saying permanent sounding goodbyes to friends and family
- Seeking out weapons, pills, or other lethal tools
A child or teen who is planning to commit suicide may also:
- Complain of being a bad person or feeling rotten inside
- Give verbal hints with statements such as: “I won’t be a problem for you much longer.”, “Nothing matters.”, “It’s no use.”, and “I won’t see you again.”
- Become suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
- Have signs of psychosis (hallucinations or bizarre thoughts)
The risk of suicide is high among those who have attempted suicide before, know someone who has killed themselves, and are pessimistic about the chances of getting relief from chronic depression. Also, teens who have a family history of mental illness and suicide are more likely to attempt suicide as are teens who have clinical depression or who suffer from active addiction. Teens who’ve already made a suicide attempt have a higher chance of committing suicide successfully. Vulnerable teenagers who suffer a serious loss (like the breakup of a romantic relationship) may try to stop the pain with suicide. A history of physical or sexual abuse, incarceration, alienation from parents and refusal to access mental health services all increase suicidal risk. Males have a higher “success” rate for suicide than females, but females make many more suicide attempts than do males. Also take note if your depressed child suddenly seems unusally happy. Sometimes this switch in attitude happens because a child has decided to end his suffering and he is actually experiencing a state of relief. Remember that depressed mood is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition and should always be professionally treated.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends taking a child’s suicidal statements seriously. If a child or adolescent says, “I want to kill myself,” or “I’m going to commit suicide,” ask him what he means. Don’t be afraid of saying the word “suicide.” You won’t be giving the teen an idea that he hadn’t thought about. Instead, you’ll help him or her think things through. Ask about depression, anxiety and unhappiness. Don’t just tell the child no to talk that way. Show interest and concern and get your child to a qualified mental health professional (such as a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist).
Suicidal Behavior in Teens
Teenagers are a vulnerable group. They experience tremendous pressure from all sides: from inside their changing bodies, from their parents, from their schools and from their peers. No one can be perfect in every area and so everyone is doing poorly in something. But teenagers can feel isolated with their failures and setbacks, lacking the perspective that older people have that “we’re all in this together.” Teenagers are intent on fitting in, looking good, being acceptable. If the only group they can fit into is a violent, drug-ridden street gang, then that’ll be the group they might very well join, especially if they have little support elsewhere or few sources of success and strength.
Because the pressure is so intense, many teens do not cope well. Their survival strategies depend to a large extent on their genetic make-up and the strategies they learn at home. Some teenagers have “hardy” genes that help them survive and thrive under stressful conditions. They can laugh their way through almost anything or simply tough it out. Others are genetically vulnerable to bouts of depression. However, the depressed teen is more at risk than depressed adults. Teens are very focused in the present. They have trouble imagining that in a few years life can improve tremendously. Their impulsivity can lead them to put an end to it all right now because they just can’t see any way out.
What You Can Do
Parents can also help buffer teens from stress by keeping the doors of communication open. Make it easy for your kids to talk to you. Keep criticism to a minimum; instead, give praise and positive feedback generously. Have fun with your teenager and try to make your home pleasant, comfortable and safe. Keep conflict down with your spouse. Avoid drama. Take care of yourself and create a healthy model of stress management strategies for your kids to learn from. Create a positive atmosphere. Have a dinner table several times a week and use it to have discussions on politics, human nature, interesting things in the news or whatever—keep talking with your kids. Make your values clear. Bring tradition and ritual into your home. Accept all feelings without correction or disapproval. Ask for behavioral change gently and respectfully. Never yell at your teenager. Never insult, name call, use sarcasm or any other form of verbal abuse. Instead, be sensitive to your teen’s feelings at all times. Discipline when necessary but only after you’ve warned a child that discipline will occur and only with mild discipline—never affecting the teen’s social life (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice for safe and effective ways of guiding teenagers).
If your teen demonstrates any of the symptoms of depression or suicidality, talk to him or her about what you are observing and arrange an appointment with a mental health professional. You can call suicide helplines in your area to get information about how to help your child. You can take your child for a mental health assessment. If your child is uncooperative, seek mental health guidance yourself. Since a suicidal person feels isolated and hopeless, any steps that family members take to address the situation can be powerfully preventative. Remember, too, that many parents have walked this road before you. Access on-line and community support if your child has been threatening suicide.