When Do You Take A Suicide Threat Seriously?

A suicide threat is probably one of my least favorite parts of therapy practice.  How do you know when to take these threats seriously and when can you chalk it up to teenage melodrama? As much I would like to give you an easy answer, this one is just plain complicated.  And, unfortunately, actual completed suicides seem to be on the rise and also more public.

You might remember the news about this Florida foster child that streamed her suicide live on Facebook this year.   And if that wasn’t scary enough, there was this 12 year old child from Georgia with a similar story.  And it’s not just teens and pre-teens.  A shockingly sad story was reported this month about this 8 year old boy in Ohio that committed suicide, allegedly due to being bullied at school.

Think it’s just media hype?  You’re wrong.  Suicide is on the rise.

Facts About Teen Suicide

The Parent Resource Center at the Jason Foundation reports that:

  • Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2014 CDC WISQARS)
  • Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2014 CDC WISQARS)
  • More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
  • Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.

I don’t know if those figures mean anything to you, but they scare me. A lot.

Parents: You Need To Talk To Kids About Suicide Prevention

There is this idea that if we talk about suicide with kids, it will encourage them to follow through.  The opposite is true.  In fact, if your child appears depressed or if they come out and say that they are suicidal, then you need to talk about it a lot.  Dismissing it or telling your child “don’t talk like that” will not make the problem go away.

Validating your child’s feelings and showing that you understand their feelings is a crucial step in helping a child that expresses thoughts of suicide. Start your sentences with “I understand” or “You are feeling sad because…”

Avoid sentences that start with “Don’t” or “All you need to do is…” or “You should.”

Risk Factors for Suicide

  • Prior suicidal thoughts/actions or inpatient hospitalizations
  • Mental health history
  • Substance use or abuse
  • Medication Side Effects (talk to your child’s doctor about the risks and benefits of all medications)
  • History of trauma (sexual abuse, domestic violence, major life changes or other deaths in the family, exposure to mental health conditions in others)
  • Bullying at school or problems with peers or boyfriends/girlfriends
  • Sexual identity issues or adjustment difficulties
  • Family history of suicide or serious mental health problems
  • Feelings of hopelessness

While this list is not exhaustive by any means, it does start to get you thinking about the fact that really, ANYTHING, can become a risk factor for kids.  It becomes really scary (like reading your cold symptoms on the Internet makes you worried you have cancer) because your child might meet several criteria from this list.   So, what can you do?

Safety Plans for Suicide Prevention

  1. Stay involved in your chid’s life.  Practice saying that you love your child and want them around.
  2. Restrict access to firearms, knives, other sharp objects, medications, and chemicals.  ALWAYS!
  3. Ensure that your child has a support network: friends, family members, church groups, sports teams, or other social activities will help reduce the risk of suicide.
  4. Monitor your child’s social networks and peer activities.
  5. Seek professional help from a mental health professional or psychiatrist.  Get emergency help if needed at a local hospital or inpatient mental health hospital.

Trust Your Instincts About Suicide

If you are concerned that your child is depressed, get help.  Even if they deny having any thoughts of suicide, therapy is still going to help increase support for your child (and you). If you think your child is even remotely serious, get help! Seek emergency services if necessary to ensure their safety.

National Resources

There are tons of national resources.  If you do a quick Google search, you will find pages of resources designed to help you through this.

1-800-273-TALK (8255) – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Suicide Prevention Therapist Finder (SPTF): http://www.HelpPRO.com/SPTF

Local Resources

Wherever you live, there are also local resources.  Your hospital emergency room is a place to go if you have no other options.  But, there are also mental health hospitals that you can go directly to for an evaluation.  You can call 911 and allow a police officer to conduct a brief evaluation and that officer can request additional services.  Memphis has a local crisis line and a Mobile Crisis Unit.

Final Thoughts

This is an impossible topic to cover in a short blog post.  If you take away anything from this message it is this:

If a child makes a suicidal threat ‘for attention’

Pay attention! 

Even if  you think it is just “for attention”, the risk of ignoring your child is too high.  Get support.  Get help.  Sometimes, attention is the best medicine!

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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