If you notice warning signs of suicide, simply ask, Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Parents may avoid asking this simple question for fear of putting the idea into their child’s head, but if someone is suicidal, the idea is already there and the person is usually relieved that someone noticed that something is wrong. If your child says yes, the next question to ask is, How would you do it? If your child has a plan, the plan is detailed, and he or she has the means to carry it out, the risk is very high. Regardless of whether or not your child has a specific plan, ask, What is keeping you from doing it?
Reassuring responses would be global reasons, such as faith in God or not wanting to hurt family or loved ones. Less reassuring responses are specific and temporary, such as thinking that a romantic relationship will continue or waiting to see if a desired award will be won. Since many mass shootings appear to be perpetrated by people who are suicidal, it’s also important to ask, Are you thinking about hurting someone else? Again, the more specific the response, the greater the risk. If your child identifies a specific person or group he or she intends to harm and has the means, it’s time to notify the authorities and the individuals targeted.
If you’re concerned but don’t think you can ask your child the suggested questions, or if your child denies having a plan and has no means but displays multiple risk factors for suicide, talk to a mental health professional (school counselor, psychologist), or to speak with someone immediately and anonymously, call a suicide hotline such as (1-800) 273-TALK (8255) for information and referral.
If your child describes a plan and has access to means to commit suicide, get immediate professional help (not later today or tomorrow) by taking him or her to a hospital emergency room or psychiatric facility that takes inpatients. If there’s a delay in getting services, remove means by hiding guns, knives, pills and other means, and don’t leave your child alone. Given that many suicide attempts and completions are committed when an individual is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, remove access to these substances as well. Once at a treatment facility, the staff will either recommend admission or make an outpatient safety plan with your child. A safety plan lists things that your child agrees to do, including contacting someone on a list, before attempting to hurt himself or herself. All good safety plans have at least one contact who will answer at all times (like suicide prevention hotlines or 911).
Of course kids could lie and say they’ll follow the plan but won’t. But most suicidal people are ambivalent about death — they don’t want to die but don’t want to keep going on the same way either. Safety plans give them alternatives to hurting themselves. Since most suicide attempts appear to be impulsive, helping them identify alternative solutions to death is very important. Even when youth are released from emergency rooms, it’s wise to limit access to methods they could use to hurt themselves. Remove access to substances like alcohol as well. Suicide pacts among teens, while rare, do occur. If your child’s friend has talked about or attempted suicide, find out how your child is doing and pay greater attention to warning signs if the friendship is very close.
Dr. Laurie Berdahl and Dr. Brian Johnson are authors of the practical parenting guide WARNING SIGNS: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression. For more information on this and many other important topics for today’s parents, visit www.warningsignsforparents.com.