No, Talking About Suicide Does Not Encourage It
by Melissa Bailey, MA, LPC
I remember clearly the first time I even heard the term "suicide". I was probably seven or eight years old, if that, and I had been reading a mystery book that I found in the basement of my parents’ house. I got to a word I didn't know and asked my mother what it was. "Suicide," she said, "that is the word for when someone decides that they don’t want to be alive anymore, so they decide to end their own life." "You die?" I asked, totally mystified by the idea of death by anything other than natural causes like old age or some sort of tragic disaster. "Why would someone WANT to die though?" I asked. "It's silly, isn't it?" my mother said, "Life has its up's and down's.. and that is normal. Things always get better though.. I want you to remember that."
That memory has stuck with me throughout my life.
In the moment, it can sometimes feel like things actually won't ever get better for us, especially when we are feeling negative emotions with a lot of weight or intensity. I think suicide can seem like an option that people will consider when they feel backed up against a wall or feel trapped and powerless. People may want things to be different, while also feeling like the path to making things different isn’t clear or it doesn't feel reachable. We are probably all capable of getting to that point. However, for many of us, we experience something that intervenes. Also, some of us simply don't experience life with such emotional intensity. Feeling things intensely can be product of our mental health being in poor condition, situational circumstances, or even just where our brains are developmentally. Previous articles I have written have touched on how teenagers often feel things with greater intensity than we do as adults, due to developmental differences, so I won't revisit that in great depth. However, the intensity of emotions that adolescents experience, paired with their general impulsivity does attribute to them being a demographic at high risk for suicide.
Suicide rates have been on the rise for a while now, which continues to be heartbreaking. However, it is important to consider that the increase in suicides we see, in the media and beyond, has also created an opportunity for us to finally really start talking about it. That, however, begs the question of how we start talking about it, especially with young kids, and how do we offer support if our teen has already expressed suicidality? For parents reading this who may be wondering these same questions, start by not panicking.
Next, let’s dispel the myth that talking about suicide will encourage or normalize suicide, because this is simply not true. Talking about suicide doesn't push people to harm themselves or give them ideas for how to harm themselves, but what it does do is open up a window for giving someone support or getting someone help who needs it. If your teen has expressed suicidality to you, as a parent, it can be really unsettling and jolting. However, in those moments, I would challenge you to slow down and remind yourself not to panic and also that they are reaching out to you for help, which is a good thing. Now, if you still feel overwhelmed, you can always contact us here, as we can definitely give some guidance on what to do or say, or one of the other resources that are out there.
It’s important to check in with your teen on what led up to them feeling this way, and do your best not to place judgments on your teen’s experiences. Try to find out what is going on in their life that may be attributing to them considering suicide as an option. Ask how relationships and classes are going at school. Often disagreements in friendships or romantic relationships can provoke some pretty intense feelings--feelings that some teens might not know how to manage. LGBT youth also experience a unique set of challenge that can put them in a higher demographic for suicide. Check in about bullying and substance use, both with your teen and within their social circles, as these can both be risk factors in teens making an actual suicide attempt. Often teenagers and young kids will use the word “suicide” and not always fully know what it even means. Explain to your teen that suicide is permanent and that while whatever is going on in life may feel like it will last forever, it is actually only temporary and that you (and also others) can help them find ways to get through it. Explore ways to help what your teen is feeling become more manageable, and encourage your teen to spend time doing something that they enjoy or to reach out to a supportive friend.
If you feel your teen may be in immediate danger to themselves, you should definitely call 911 or take your teen to the ER (if you feel it is safe to transport them there). Your teen may be in immediate danger if they are telling you what they are going to do and when they are going to do it. As a parent, you may also have a gut feeling that they aren’t safe, which I would encourage you to honor in these moments. Be aware that teenagers are impulsive. If they do have a plan on how they may harm themselves, they need to talk to a professional. You (or your teen) can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or via chat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Trevor Project also has a Lifeline 866-488-7386. Both lines are available 24/7. There are many resources out there, including us here. Sometimes it's just a matter of knowing where to look!