Next month, on November 23rd is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.
A friend who lost her dad to suicide talked to me about attending a Survivors of Suicide Loss support group. She said it was “invaluable” to her but one thing that struck her was that most of the attendees were parents who had lost children. I can’t even begin to know how horrible it must be to lose a child by their own hand. Its something I definitely think about, knowing that mental illness runs in my family, and that 90% of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable mental illness (NIMH).
But the most heartbreaking statistic of all is that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24. (NIMH)
The National Alliance on Mental Illness in Massachusetts tweeted recently “Let’s talk about (suicide) early!”
I know this is such a heart-wrenching topic, one you probably don’t want to think about. I don’t want to think about it either, but I feel like I really don’t have a choice. And I’m often asked by fellow survivors of suicide loss about how, when and if to talk to their kids about mental illness and suicide.
There’s so much to consider.
In this age of communication and social media, personal family details are out there. And not everyone is sensitive or kind. Stigma exists big time.
Bullying is also a HUGE problem, and often is related to situations resulting in children who attempt or complete suicide.
These topics are HARD to talk about, and of course we don’t want our kids to have to face uncomfortable or painful realities too soon.
They have rough days too, and that’s ok.
Looking at the statistics, and that’s all I can do right now since I’ve never had a child over the age of 6, I think 9 could be an age to start speaking more in-depth about these issues. Of course, that would vary by child based on maturity level, experience, etc. As they reach the early teenage years, I truly believe parents can have a really important conversation about mental illness and suicide.
I personally feel its important for a couple of reasons.
#1 If your child ends up having mental health issues themselves.
I never knew my grandmother struggled all of her life with mental illness until after I was diagnosed as an adult. I wish I had had an understanding of my family history from a much younger age. I think it could have saved me a lot of grief trying to live with and understand my own struggles. I also think even if I ultimately did not have mental illness, knowing more about my family history and seeing my loving wonderful Grandmother (who also happens to have mental illness) could have given me a very powerful perspective on life. I may not have felt so alone, or so strange for having feelings of overwhelming depression and anxiety. I might have reached out sooner.
#2 If your child does not have mental illness.
Talking about mental health and suicide prevention will give your child a better understanding of something that affects so many people–maybe even some of their own friends or classmates. Think of it this way, arming them with knowledge might allow/encourage them to reach out and help a friend when they see something is off. Your child might be more empathetic, less inclined to judge “strange” behavior, and more willing to do something constructive about it. That is when it really matters. When they can help a friend.
Here are interesting books that were recommended to me, available on Amazon: Why Are You So Sad: A Child’s Book about Parental Depression
This book My Feeling Better Workbook: Help for Kids Who Are Sad and Depressed
Here is some great information about talking to kids about mental illness from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
When talking about mental illnesses, parents should:
- communicate in a straightforward manner
- communicate at a level that is appropriate to a child’s age and development level
- have the discussion when the child feels safe and comfortable
- watch their child’s reaction during the discussion
- slow down or back up if the child becomes confused or looks upset
Considering these points will help any child to be more relaxed and understand more of the conversation.
Pre-School Age Children
Young children need less information and fewer details because of their more limited ability to understand. Preschool children focus primarily on things they can see, for example, they may have questions about a person who has an unusual physical appearance, or is behaving strangely. They would also be very aware of people who are crying and obviously sad, or yelling and angry.
Older children may want more specifics. They may ask more questions, especially about friends or family with emotional or behavioral problems. Their concerns and questions are usually very straightforward. “Why is that person crying? Why does Daddy drink and get so mad? Why is that person talking to herself?” They may worry about their safety or the safety of their family and friends. It is important to answer their questions directly and honestly and to reassure them about their concerns and feelings.
Teenagers are generally capable of handling much more information and asking more specific and difficult questions. Teenagers often talk more openly with their friends and peers than with their parents. As a result, some teens may have already have misinformation about mental illnesses. Teenagers respond more positively to an open dialogue which includes give and take. They are not as open or responsive when a conversation feels one-sided or like a lecture.
Talking to children about mental illnesses can be an opportunity for parents to provide their children with information, support, and guidance. Learning about mental illnesses can lead to improved recognition, earlier treatment, greater understanding and compassion, as well as decreased stigma.
If you or your child has experienced the loss of a loved one to suicide, here are some resources for helping children cope from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
More info to come in November for International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. The AFSP hosts local survivor support events in 300 cities on 6 continents on November 23rd. Mark your calendars. To find one near you, visit: http://www.afsp.org/copingwithsuicide/international-survivors-of-suicide-day/participating-cities
Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links.