Taking the heroics out of suicide
ASK THE EXPERT: Q The many suicides of young people in the media have made me really worried as a parent. I have two teenagers – a boy of 14 and a girl who is just 16. As far as I know they are doing well, with the usual ups and downs of the teenage years. But sometimes I worry if I could be missing something. How could I tell if they were in distress or even suicidal?
I don’t want to be morbid but you read in the newspapers how frequently the suicide came out of the blue and the parents never suspected a thing. How can you spot the early warning signs as a parent? You also read about copycat suicides which is terrifying. Should I talk to my children about what is going on in the media and, if so, how should I go about it? I don’t want to make matters worse or worst still put ideas in their head.
A Although the media coverage about the tragic suicides of young people can raise important issues, there is the danger that some of the reporting can inadvertently present suicide as a legitimate, or even heroic, choice for young people in distress. Given the potential for copycat or clustering of suicides, it matters greatly how suicides are reported in the media in general and how they are discussed with young people in schools and families in particular.
When suicide-prevention programmes were being developed for schools in the US, many of the initial evaluations found that some programmes (which focused on providing information and educating young people about suicide) did not reduce the incidence of suicide and may have actually increased young people thinking about it as an option.
The key learning from these initial programmes is that raising the subject of suicide is a delicate conversation to get right with young people and that prevention should largely focus on positive mental health and equipping your children to deal with distress appropriately.
Talking to your children about suicide
When the subject of suicide comes up in the media or if your teenager hears of a suicide in their local area, it is important that you discuss the issue with them, rather than keeping silent. Take the view that as teenagers they will have discussed it with their peers and it is important that you as their parents are also involved in this conversation.
The first thing to do is acknowledge the tragedy of what has happened and give them space to share their feelings and thoughts. Then make sure to acknowledge the distress and upset the young person must have been feeling in this situation, and how particularly sad it was that they did not talk to someone or realise the other options they had to tackle their problems.
Crucially, you should also make sure to acknowledge the enormous distress for the young person’s family and friends and to help your teenager empathise with this.
Talk of how serious and irreversible suicide is and the great harm suicide does to a family, the community and society.
The key message that you want your teenager to take away is that suicide causes great harm to other people as well as the young person and is never a legitimate option to dealing with distress.