Suicide and Depression: How to Talk to Your Kids and What to Watch Out For

Suicide is the 10th most common cause of death in the United States, with more than 38,000 deaths per year. Suicide is preventable, but predicting who will decide to kill themselves can be difficult.

Nevertheless, there are risk factors and red flags for suicide. Suicide prevention experts suggest that if a loved one exhibits any of these warning signs, it is important to make sure the person is not left alone; remove any dangerous objects or drugs that could be used in a suicide attempt; and seek immediate medical help.

Signs to watch for

According to the American Foundation for Suicide:

  • Talking or discussions about wanting to die
  • Researching ways to kill oneself
  • References to hopelessness or feeling as if life has no purpose
  • Feelings of being trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Feelings of being a burden to others
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Sleep changes; either excessive sleep or insomnia
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Expressions of rage or a desire to seek revenge
  • Anxiety, agitation or recklessness
  • Extreme mood swings

Suicide is the way that depression, a very serious illness kills.  Just as surely as a heart attack is the way coronary artery disease kills, it is similar with depression.  As with heart disease, there are things a person can do to try to be as healthy as possible.  The disease itself is no one’s fault.

Kids can handle this difficult topic, although it may be hard for you to discuss it. They will have questions, but they will be able to understand the information at their developmental level. Even more, it’s crucial that kids understand mental illness so that they can take diligent care of themselves throughout their own lives.

3 great reasons to tell them the truth of what’s going on:

  1. Kids deserve the truth. Hiding or lying about the facts will almost always come back to bite you and will get in the way of effective communication in your relationship.
  2. Mental health issues run in families, almost all families. It’s necessary to begin explaining these to kids as soon as it comes up so that they have years to prepare themselves and get good, solid information instead of fear and guessing at what to do.
  3. Even if this happened in another family, it will open meaningful conversation and a framework for future talks with your kids and teens. Seeing the pain that suicide causes is important for every teenager to understand.

  

What to say

As with any tough topic you address with your child, be honest, share the facts you’re comfortable sharing, and then pick the one message you want your child to remember from the conversation. For suicide, the most basic fact is:

This person who died suffered from an illness called depression for many years and died of it. For the one message that sticks, see below for some developmentally appropriate age appropriate talking points.

Toddlers to age 6:

Your Uncle was sick from an illness called depression. He died from it, and I’m going to miss him very much. How do you feel about it?

Ages 7-9:

Your Uncle had an illness called depression for many years. He died from his depression. I wish he’d been able to get more help.

For this age group you may be willing, or need, if they will hear from others, to address how he died. If you do, you can simply say. Depression tells a person that the entire world would be better off if they were dead which is untrue. So, he killed himself which was wrong and could have been prevented with some help.  Remember to be age appropriate but honest.

Ages 10-13:

Your Uncle suffered from depression for years. Do you know anything about depression?

Asking a question and listening to the answer will let you know what your child already believes about the topic. You may be surprised what they have heard and allow a deeper conversation with them. You might also need to correct some misconceptions. But if they do not mention suicide, you may have to.

People with very bad depression sometimes try to kill themselves. It’s because this disease makes them feel worthless and awful and makes them believe they will never feel any better which is untrue. They start to believe the world will be better off without them. If they do not get the right kind of help, sometimes they die by suicide.

Teens:

Your Uncle died of suicide. What do you know about depression?

Teens value the respect of being told what’s happening like an adult. Asking what they already know guarantees that you will start a conversation at their level, rather than assuming they know what they do not or frustrating your child with information they already have. Be sure in this first conversation or a follow up to turn the topic to your teen’s feelings.

Do you ever feel that kind of sadness or hopelessness? What would you do if you did?

Many adults are afraid to discuss suicide with teens, fearing it will give them the idea to try it. This fear has been studied and research shows that more discussion is better, not worse. Telling our older kids straight out that we worry about them, that we’d be devastated if they died of suicide, does help!

Depression affects many children and adults. More conversation helps! When faced with this kind of tragedy in your own family, a friend or just an acquaintance, the only good that can come out of it is keeping someone else safe. So, talk, ask, and get help for anyone who needs it.

Scott Casady, MA, LPC

If your relationship with your child or teen is struggling, and you are interested in some additional support, please reach out by contacting us here.  We have talented and skilled counselors that can help you and your family on a journey of peace, balance and quality relationships. 

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).