Warning Signs for Suicide

Most people don’t want to think about suicide as something their child is considering, however statistics show that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for people ages 15-24. According to the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, national surveys tell us that 17% of high school students admit to thinking about suicide and almost 8% acknowledge actually making an attempt. There is no one thing or event that causes suicide and no one person can prevent one. The unfortunate truth is that suicide can happen to ANY kid in ANY family at ANY time!

It is terrifying to think about our children wanting to end their lives, what could be so terrible that would make them want to take such a permanent action? Suicide is never about death but is always about ending the pain being experienced. Whether the pain is being caused by depression, anxiety, other mental health concerns, bullying, humiliation or shame, the pain drives a sense of hopelessness, helplessness and powerlessness and the thought of living with the pain becomes overwhelming. Suicide becomes an attempt to solve a problem that seems impossible to solve in any other way.  What causes one person to feel hopeless, helpless and powerless may be a mere inconvenience to another person, but for the individual experiencing the pain those feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and powerlessness cannot simply be willed away.

So, what can a parent do? Perhaps the best place to start is with you, write down what you are sensing and seeing, the changes in behavior at home and at school, with friends and siblings. Creating a concrete list of behaviors and changes you are noticing provides an objective place to start. Next how intense are these behaviors or changes? Using a scale of 1-10, with 1 being mildly depressed to 10 being at risk to harm themselves, scale your concerns and this will help you know what kind of care to seek for your child. Warning signs for suicide include

  • Feelings that seem different from past feelings, a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, that they are a burden and others would be better off if they were not here, feeling anxious or angry;
  • Actions that are different from the way your child has acted in the past like talking about death or suicide, taking dangerous risks, withdrawing from activities or sports that have been important to them in the past and using alcohol or drugs;
  • Changes in personality, behavior, sleeping patterns, eating habits, changes in friend groups or withdrawing completely from social situations or a sudden improvement after a period of being down or withdrawn;
  • Threats that convey a sense of hopelessness, worthlessness or preoccupation with death, plans to give away their favorite things, seeming to want to put things in order, internet searches for ways to die and self-harm actions like cutting;
  • Situations that can serve as trigger points for suicidal behaviors such as a break-up, death of a close friend, getting in trouble at home or with the law or cyber bullying which may lead to feelings of powerlessness for anything to change

Once you have used the scale and determined your level of concern, you can find the appropriate level of support.

If your child has, a mild level of depression, seeing your primary care physician or seeking outpatient therapy with a licensed mental health professional may be a good place to start. If you are unfamiliar with a mental health professional, seeking a recommendation from a school counselor, physicians, clergy or from your insurance company may be helpful.  If you believe your child to be at a more severe level of potential for self-harm, Johnson County Mental Health has a 24-hour crisis line for assessment. Cottonwood Springs, a stand-alone mental health hospital in Olathe, has inpatient services as well as an intensive outpatient program for individuals with depression and other mental health issues.  Signature Behavioral Health has an adolescent intensive outpatient program in Overland Park and any hospital Emergency Room has trained crisis staff to evaluate and assess suicidal ideation.

Talking to your child about suicide is perhaps the best way to address mild to moderate concerns. Understandably talking to your child about suicide is uncomfortable and scary (let’s just admit that!) The number one myth many people believe is that if someone seems depressed, if asking about thoughts of suicide will plant the idea in their head. This is NOT TRUE! Having someone acknowledge that they are thinking of suicide provides an opportunity to talk about it and helps them not feel so alone.

Being prepared for the conversation is the best way to combat fear. Find a time that you have the best chance of being heard, perhaps a car ride or bed time or a recent suicide which has received media attention can provide the perfect opportunity to bring up the topic.  Currently “13 Reasons Why” (an original Netflix series on teen suicide) and the Blue Whale Challenge (an internet game that challenges “players” to 50 days of increasingly dangerous behaviors which culminate in suicide) are getting a lot of media attention and can be a springboard for talking about suicide with your child. Rehearse what you want to say and find a reference point, “I saw that starting this year all teachers in the state of Kansas have to have training to recognize the signs of suicide because of the increase of teen suicides.” Be honest, “I’m uncomfortable asking you about this, but it is more important that I talk to you than being comfortable”. By acknowledging your discomfort, you allow your child to acknowledge their discomfort. Be direct and ask for their response, have you thought about suicide, what about your friends, have you watched 13 Reasons Why and if so what did you think about it? Listen to what your child is saying and try not to overreact or under react.

Resources for warning signs on suicide, how to talk to your children about suicide and finding the right treatment are available through Johnson County Mental Health’s website and other suicide prevention websites. Taking the time to familiarize yourself before a crisis is wisdom in action and asking for help is the most courageous thing you can do for your family.

Johnson County Mental Health

24-Hour Emergency Services: 913-268-0156
During daytime business hours call: 913-826-4200

Cottonwood Springs

24/7 Crisis line: 913-298-6687

Signature Behavioral Health

816-795-1445, Option 1 Outpatient Programs