Please see the bottom of this page for helpful downloads including advice from a parent of a suicidal teen and guidelines for schools.
We’d like to think that our children are immune to depression and thoughts of suicide. We’ve done everything possible to make them happy. We want the best for them. We want them to grow up to have fulfilling careers, loving families, and good friends and success.
Sometimes, however, it’s not quite that simple. Depression is normal during adolescence, and about 5% of teens and adults can have long term issues with depression, which can be caused by difficult life circumstances or a chemical imbalance of the brain. Concerns like school, parental or peer pressure, sudden loss, isolation, and abuse can cause also significant stress.
Becoming a Safe Person for Difficult Discussions
Supporting a young person during periods of stress and depression is crucial. Parental support can be the difference between hope and despair. As a parent, you can develop skills that help make you a safe person to talk to about difficult topics.
• Model talking about emotions as much as possible: when you describe your feelings of anger, sadness, or loss, your family can learn how to talk about emotions with you.
• Talk about the importance of mental and emotional health: DON’T avoid discussions about friends and relatives who feel depressed! Talk about depression as something that can be helped. Lift the stigma of depression and emotional pain.
• Talk about sudden loss: don’t avoid discussions about sudden loss, like death and relationship break-ups. Talk about the sadness that occurs and how people come out the other side. Young people experiencing their first losses need to understand they can get through it.
• Talk about substance use and abuse: like it or not, most teenagers experiment with alcohol and other substances. Open dialog about these issues can help avoid abuse and reckless behavior.
• Talk about being a friend: teens and most adults are not therapists… but we can be good friends. Talk to your children about what it means to be a good friend. When we see a friend in trouble, we need to respond by talking to the friend, getting help together, and going to an adult to report that a friend is in danger.
• Model talking about failure: good and bad things happen to everyone every day. Talk to your family about your own triumphs and failures. If your kids know that you are not perfect, they can see that they do not need to be perfect either, and can express their failures, large and small, more easily. Remember, our children are still learning–they need to know it is okay to make mistakes!
• Learn to listen: if your child is depressed, don’t be dismissive or over eager to “fix” the situation. Instead, sit down and listen to what your child has to say, giving him/her your full attention. Even though your child may say things that you do not like or that are difficult to hear, try to listen without interrupting or reacting and try to respond without anger. Depression in young people often mimics and evokes anger, so this is not always easy.
• Multiple safe people: everyone needs multiple safe people to talk to. As a parent, you might like to believe that all information can come to you, but an adolescent’s world is not that simple. Encourage your child to talk to other family members, counselors, coaches or teachers. Talk to your children and explore appropriate people to talk to about problems.
• Take a break as a family: families are under stress and it is fine just to take a break, and go have fun as a family once in a while. Take a mental health day, even if that day is a school day.
• Find listening moments: find moments when you and your child can just casually talk about life. Long drives, rainy days, and family dinners all can be moments where past communications gaps can break down.
Making an intervention
Sometimes, as a parent, you need to intervene. You need to be the person with the courage to bring up difficult topics like suicide and self-destructive behaviors. A young person feeling suicidal might not have the courage to tell you directly, because these feelings are very difficult and confusing. Be especially careful after a sudden loss, like a relationship break-up or death in the family. Often when young people experience their first loss, they can act recklessly, both emotionally and physically. And watch for substance use and abuse. Many adolescents and adults that die from suicide have a substance in their bodies at the time of death. Look and listen for clues that your child may be in trouble, like:
• Acting helpless and hopeless
• Suddenly isolating from friends and family
• Talking about or expressing fatalistic statements
• Talking about or expressing death in unusual ways, including journaling or art
• Experimenting with or sudden interest in activities that could cause significant harm
• Suddenly acting very irritable, perhaps violently (some people express their depression outward, not inward)
• Taking behavior risks that might not kill, but might cause serious harm to their bodies
• Having erratic sleep patterns causing mood changes
• “Medicating” depression with alcohol or drugs, which amplify depression and impulsive behavior. These behaviors and statements may or may not be a sign that your child is considering suicide, but they are a sign that something is wrong, and as a parent you need to have the courage to confront the situation. Your child may really want to talk to you about these concerns, but might feel afraid, embarrassed, or not know how to bring it up.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
• Initiate a direct conversation. Find a time when the two of you can talk privately without interruption.
• Tell your child the behaviors you’ve noticed that cause you concern.
• Assure your child that you love him and that you want to hear whatever he has to say.
• Ask your child directly if she’s been feeling depressed. How long has she been feeling depressed? Try to sense if his or her feelings have become more intense over time.
• Temper your reaction. It’s okay to express your concern; however anger may cause your child to become defensive. Avoid interrogating or accusing.
• Focus on your child’s feelings rather than your own.
• Ask your child what his or her ideas are about how to get help and express your own ideas. Reassure them that you want to go down this road together.
• Thank your child for sharing his or her feelings with you. Reaffirm that you are available anytime they need to talk.
• Many youth resist talking to their parents. Perhaps you can get another trusted adult (relative, religious leader, coach, friend) to talk with your child about his or her feelings.
• Sometimes parents feel shame or guilt because their child is having mental health or emotional health concerns. If you feel that way, don’t let it prevent you from finding help for your child. And get help yourself. Being a caregiver is difficult.
If your child is depressed or suicidal
Discuss with your child the possibilities of obtaining counseling services or participating in a support group or youth group where he or she can talk more about his feelings and concerns.
Supervision is an important part of suicide prevention. If your child is particularly depressed, take the time to just hang out, and make sure your child is scheduled to be around others. Adolescent suicides usually happen during times of isolation, not when others are around. Crisis periods are usually short term in nature, and constant supervision during a crisis may be important. In some cases it may require 24-hour supervision for a couple days (i.e. the young person is never left alone).
Take a mental health day, even if that is a school day. Sometimes you know your children may be at a breaking point. Taking a mental health day matters. Sometimes a young person just needs to stay home and sleep. Or maybe some days you both sleep late and go to a fun movie, amusement park or the beach. Sometimes a quick two day vacation is a good idea (and small hotel rooms mean 24-hour supervision). Young people can be very focused on the present–change the present to something fun! Discuss ideas about positive activities that are unrelated but may help with the expression of depression or anger, such as sports, art, or community involvement.
Encourage sleep and good eating. The healthy mind needs a health body. Lack of sleep and nutrients do not allow the brain to function properly. Often it may be near impossible for a young person to get eight hours of sleep during stressful times. Encourage make-up sleep on the weekends. If your child needs to end their homework time early some nights in order to get enough sleep, it is okay!
Access to weapons or medication of a family member increases the risks for youth suicide. If your child expresses the desire to die, remove and restrict access to potentially fatal objects.
For better or worse, young people communicate electronically today. When possible monitor their use of social media. A sudden termination of social connections, or statements or posts made about suicide or self harm may be warning signs. Many young people may post cries for help in this way.
If your child is searching for suicide websites or is “following” social media pages related to self-harm, this may be a sign there is something wrong.
Watch closely. If reckless behavior or depression is getting worse, an intervention may be needed. If the situation is very serious or life threatening, call San Francisco Comprehensive Child Crisis. It is available 24-hours a day at 415/970-3800, or if needed just call 911.
Be there for your child. Always let them know that you are there to talk and that your love is unconditional.
And finally, feel free to use the services of San Francisco Suicide Prevention at any time for support or information. We are here 24 hours a day at 415/781-0500 or on the web at sfsuicide.org. You may also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for additional support or information at 1-800/273-TALK or on the web at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
INFORMATION DOWNLOADS FOR TEACHERS AND PARENTS
San Francisco Suicide Prevention offers services to schools in the City of San Francisco. Visit the Youth Risk Reduction Program section of the website.
San Francisco Suicide Prevention conducts suicide prevention risk reduction educational presentations to students, teachers and parents at no cost to the requesting organization. Contact the Youth Outreach & Education Manager, Sivan Adato at SivanA@sfsuicide.org or 415/984-1900 ext.102 to schedule a presentation.
Link here for San Francisco Suicide Prevention’s post-vention guidelines after a suicide at a school.
Link here for San Francisco Suicide Prevention’s Parents Guide
Link here for San Francisco Suicide Prevention’s Statement on Social Media / Facebook’s Role in Youth Suicide
Link here for Advice from a Parent of a Suicidal Teen