What Can I Do?
I often hear this question. I hear it from panicked parents, desperate friends, and clergy.
This is what you need to accept. In order for a person to take their own life, they have to believe all hope for change is gone, they believe they are a burden to family and friends, and then those two beliefs override the fear of taking ones own life, in other words, they have lost their fear of death. With this basic understanding, you can take simple but powerful, effective steps to reach them in a meaningful way. Tell them they are not a burden. If you help them identify and Look for ways to solve their problem, that refreshes hope. Do not shame them into staying or create a fear of eternal punishment to try and stop them. They already feel worthless. Remember, their path didn’t start with a suicide attempt. Their pain started long ago. Also remember, it didn’t have to be an incident that started the downward cycle. It could have been a concussion. In any case, the ability to identify and question their painful thoughts and beliefs are key to keeping them alive and aiding them to a happy, healthy life.
I’ve outlined basic steps to follow to keep a child safe for a parent, guardian, or friend. This takes courage, straightforward questions spoken with love, and time. These steps can save a life. I recommend taking a QPR or SafeTalk class to learn more.
When you become aware that a child in your life is depressed and or suicidal, there is no place for harsh judgments or demands. You might be tempted to say things like:
What are you thinking?
Can’t you see all of your blessings?
Are you doing this for attention?
You don’t have any reason to be depressed.
Get over yourself.
Life isn’t that hard. Want to hear hard?
Don’t be so upset. He’s just a boy or she’s just a girl. More will come along.
You aren’t getting A’s? Why not? No wonder you’re sad.
No one would want to hang out with you if you’re sad like this!
Eat better and exercise, that’s all it takes to feel better.
You have NOTHING to worry about! Wait until you’re grown up!
You’re so amazing! I don’t understand why you’re depressed.
How can you be so smart and so stupid at the same time?
I raised you better than this.
There are so many demeaning statements that scared adults and friends might say to try and control the situation. They can’t imagine that people can be so ‘weak’. In the case of parents, they don’t want to see themselves as failures. None of these negative thoughts are true. The reality? Children struggle. No child really wants to die, they just want the pain to stop and they don’t have a clue how to make that happen. Their pain may seem stupid to someone else but it’s very real to them. The only way they will ever be okay is if they find a safe way to question the thoughts they are having that drive them to believe there is no hope for happiness. Untrue thoughts create pain. You may not be the right person to help them deal with their painful thoughts and beliefs but you can be a safe place for them to come at any time. Truth is your child doesn’t want to disappoint you and will lie to avoid it. You may have to refer them to professional help. Here are a few suggestions:
SafeUt – free texting with Utah’s suicide hotline with licensed therapists. 100% confidential.
Check with your clergy for possible financial help with a counselor.
Clergy may provide help.
Last resort, your local hospital behavioral unit.
When you are concerned but are not sure how serious it may be, here are basic questions to help determine the severity of the situation and then suggestions on what actions to take.
With gentleness and concern, directly ask if the child, “Have you been feeling depressed.”
If yes, then ask them, ” Are you having suicidal thoughts.”
Let’s take a break here. Many people think if they mention suicide, it puts the idea in their heads. This is false. Let’s continue.
Next, in a very matter of fact, gentle voice, ask them if they have a plan on how they would carry suicide out. “Do you have a plan?”
If they say they don’t have a plan but yes to having suicidal thoughts, DO NOT OVER REACT! After listening patiently to the child’s concerns, suggest writing a safety plan together where they can identify people they can call if they start feeling suicidal. Make sure they have phone numbers readily available. There are apps that can help. Together, call their choices and explain the child’s choice to call them in an emergency. Identify stress relieving activities such as coloring, a favorite exercise, writing in a journal, or anything else they might enjoy. Exercise is particularly effective. Arrange some quality time with your child. Most of all, do your best to ensure they are not left alone until you can arrange professional help. This may be difficult but well worth it in the long run. Often kids struggle at night when everyone else is asleep. Sleep in their room or invite them to sleep in yours. This simple act has saved the lives of many children.
Start making plans to get your family into therapy. It’s always a family issue. To send a child off to therapy alone sends the message that they are the problem. That may cause more self-doubt and isolation. Individual therapy may also be necessary. There are recommended therapists available on this website.
If you’re considering medicating your child, please get a diagnosis by a qualified child psychologist or psychiatrist. There are accurate diagnostic tools. Good evaluations take time. Anecdotal answers by friends, family, or even family physicians should not be sufficient proof to justify altering a child’s brain chemistry. Your child’s brain is not a test lab. Know the facts. There is not one antidepressant FDA approved for children under 24 years of age. Medication is an option along with many other options that have worked successfully for others. This site is filled with resources.
If they say yes to having a plan, then ask how they want to do it. “How were you planning on completing suicide?”
This is where most people get really scared. They don’t ask because they don’t want to know. This is also where it’s tempting to start lecturing with those negative statements mentioned above. Don’t. Just listen.
If they say yes, they are in crises mode and you’ll need to make critical decisions. First, remove any object they mentioned they wanted to use to complete suicide. Second, you’re going to find help and absolutely not going to leave them alone.
Tell them, “We need to call someone to help. Should we call your parents? Who would you like to call?”
As a friend or equal, you must include another responsible adult at this point. If they have a hard time thinking of who they can call, make suggestions which might include parents, school counselors, clergy or anyone they suggest as long as it’s a responsible adult. If they reject all your suggestions, then explain you love them and that you have to call someone and then make your choice. THEN DON’T LEAVE THEM ALONE. Police are the last resort. This is a good time to download the SafeUt app from your app store and initiate a session with them.
So many kids don’t want their friends to be mad at them so they don’t tell anyone. Stop and consider how you will feel if they do complete suicide and you didn’t tell anyone. I promise, you will be glad you called someone and they will get over it eventually. They may even thank you some day.
As a parent or guardian, this is when you take them to the hospital emergency room. It’s a scary step. Resistant thoughts such as, ‘I don’t want my family to know I’m a bad parent’, ‘This will cost too much’, ‘I’m scared’, and so many others are not reasons to avoid the hospital. The hospital will keep them safe. It’s a beginning step. They won’t walk away cured. They will walk away alive. Then, it’s time to get help as was discussed above.
What happens at the hospital? Basically, they will be admitted, asked basic questions, and decide if your child needs to stay or if they can be safely sent home with a safety plan in place. If they stay, they will be admitted and blood and urine tests may be performed. They will be further evaluated. Your child will likely be put on some sort of medication. They probably will stay for 3-5 days or longer depending on the results of their evaluation. You go home devastated and slightly relieved that your child will be safe for at least one night.
Now it’s time to get ready for when they come home and the real work begins. Plan to get your family into therapy right away. If you can, call your extended family and create a support group for your child. All of you may be embarrassed but isolation will drive your loved one to suicide faster than embarrassment. Most of all, when they come home commend them for their bravery to admit their most frightening thoughts. It saved their life. Do not blame them or accuse them of just wanting attention. I’ve even seen parents force their teenage children to pay for the hospital costs. Please do not be so cruel.
It’s important to understand their suicide threat is the last option in a long line of painful thoughts. Find where it began and focus on healing those moments.
Again, please search out the many options that can help a child learn to change their painful thoughts. There is information on mindfulness meditation, highly effective supplements, and gentle alternative therapies as well as other modalities that have worked to save lives. It’s not enough to simply save a life. Every child deserves joy and peace. Above all else, be your child’s resident expert. Love them.
The statements made on this page are not meant as a means of diagnosis. Please seek a trained professional.