Over the past couple of months, there has been a teen suicide at each of two neighboring high schools in my community. To say this is tragic is an understatement. As a child and adolescent therapist, I knew these suicides were going to make their way into my therapy office during the weeks that followed. In fact, I was going to ensure they did because I am a firm believer it is important for therapists, and other adults, to talk with teens about suicide. Why? Because teens are already talking about it, and it is likely the people they are talking to are not knowledgeable about how to help them process such an act in a healthy and helpful way.
When a teen in a community commits suicide, there is a full spectrum of feelings among other teens. Teens may feel confused, sad, angry, curious, anxious, numb, or scared. Some may feel triggered and have their own thoughts about suicide or self-harm. Some may be frustrated by the sudden outpouring of love and attention that the teen who died gets, especially if it feels disingenuous. And some may have a hard time processing what would bring a peer to decide to end their life. Regardless, these reactions often bring a desire to talk about what happened. In seeking to understand, teens may turn to social media, including Instagram and Facebook pages that share unfiltered photos and information on suicide and self-harm. These are not places we want our children to be learning about such topics.
Talking with teens about suicide is also important because they are often the first line of defense in preventing teens from ending their lives. Most suicidal teens have expressed their suicidal ideation, whether blatantly or subtly, to friends or peers either in person or via social media. Unfortunately, many teens don’t know what to do with the information, are unsure of the signs to look out for, or don’t want to be “that person” who snitches or gets involved.
Especially following the suicide of an adolescent, there are things that adults can do to not only help teens process the loss but also help prevent other suicides. The first is to know and be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation. Following a suicide, these signs and symptoms may be heightened in adolescents, especially in already depressed, anxious, or suicidal teens:
- Depressed or anxious mood
- Frequent running away
- Expressions of suicidal thoughts and talk of death
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and activities
- Impulsive and sometimes aggressive behavior
- Alcohol and/or drug abuse
- Engaging in high-risk behaviors
- Social isolation
- Low self-esteem
- Giving away meaningful belongings
- Self-harm behavior
- Suggestive social media messages, videos, posts
Equally important is how to take action and be a safety net for adolescents in need. As an adult, it is important to be available to adolescents and talk openly with them about suicide. It is so important that adults check in directly with teens following the suicide of a peer, especially if there have been prior concerning signs or symptoms. Parents, teachers, and counselors alike should process the loss with teens and explore how they are feeling, what they are thinking, and how they are coping with the loss. Some helpful questions include:
It can feel scary to talk about suicide, but in my experience it is important to talk directly with adolescents to help them deal with this topic. If you are unsure how to talk with your teen about suicide, connect them with their guidance counselor or a therapist who can help them process any feelings they might be having.
- How well did you know the teen who died?
- How do you feel about the news?
- What are some thoughts or questions you have been having since hearing about it?
- Have you talked to anyone about the suicide?
- Have you seen any information online about suicide?
- How has your school (whether it is the school that the person who died attended or not) been addressing the suicide?
- Have you ever thought about killing or hurting yourself? What can you do or who can you talk to if you have those thoughts?
- Do you know anyone who has expressed those thoughts/feelings? How have you handled that? How do you feel about that?
- What can you do if you hear that someone has suicidal thoughts?
After exploring some of these questions, it is important to help them come up with a plan for what they can do if they have a concern for a peer and explore any potential resistance. It can be helpful to communicate that there are ways to report their concerns in a confidential way that can protect their relationship with the peer. Emphasize the importance of doing something.
It is also important to help them identify their own coping strategies to manage things such as anxiety, depression, peer problems, and stress, as well as to help them identify a trusted adult whom they can talk to if they are struggling. Let them know they are not alone.
It can feel scary to talk about suicide, but in my experience it is important to talk directly with adolescents to help them deal with this topic. If you are unsure how to talk with your teen about suicide, connect them with a therapist or guidance counselor who can help them process any feelings they might be having. Know you are not alone, either. Together, hopefully lives can be saved.
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