What is it?
If your child is at immediate risk—if they have done something to try and kill themselves or they are threatening to do so—call 911 or go to your local hospital. For preventative and/or after suicide attempt care, call 1-800-SUICIDE Helpline (1-800-784-2433)
Suicide is not an easy subject to talk about and it can be very difficult to learn that a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide, particularly when it’s a child or youth in your life. While suicide can seem scary and overwhelming, it’s helpful to remember it’s not shameful or unusual for families or communities to experience. If you or someone in your life is having thoughts of suicide, you are not alone.
In most cases, having thoughts of suicide is not about wanting to die; it is about wanting the pain to stop. When a person is having thoughts of suicide, they are likely feeling so much emotional pain they are unable to see other options. Often, they feel they are a burden to others, and are filled with a sense of worthlessness, self-hatred, rejection or hopelessness. While they may not be conscious of it, people who are struggling with suicide are trying to let others know they need help and are looking for other options instead of suicide.
While most children and youth who have thoughts of suicide don’t act on them, it’s important to take all thoughts of suicide seriously. It’s not useful to try to determine whether someone’s thoughts of suicide are “real”. It is also not helpful to disregard thoughts of suicide as ‘manipulative’ or ‘just a cry for help’. Take this as an opportunity to recognize that they are struggling, and an opportunity to access more support.
A person can have different reasons for having thoughts of suicide, and these may change over time. It is important to remember:
- suicide affects children and youth from all social, economic and cultural backgrounds
- it is complex and no single factor causes someone to think about suicide
- in many cases, thoughts of suicide are linked to other mental health challenges, such as depression and anxiety
- there is no one type of person who thinks about suicide and parents/caregivers are not to blame
- talking about suicide openly and social connection are key to prevention
Suicidal thoughts can happen once in a while or regularly over a long period of time. People who get through periods of suicidal thinking say that talking openly about their thoughts was helpful, as well as being able to connect with resources that helped them deal with the underlying issues.
How do I know?
Most of the time, if someone is having thoughts of suicide, they will try to tell someone. However, because of the shame, stigma and fear surrounding suicide, they are usually careful about who and how they “tell.” It’s natural for parents and others to miss that a child or youth is struggling with suicide, or to dismiss or avoid the signs because they are unsure of what to do and are not sure if it’s about suicide. Consider the following situations:
You’ve been noticing changes in your 15-year-old. They are much more argumentative, withdrawing from social activities and resisting school. You’ve noticed they aren’t hanging around with their established group of friends and their writing is darker and more preoccupied with death.
Your usually confident 19-year-old in first year university is having panic attacks and not getting the grades they used to. You notice they’re drinking more alcohol, have started drinking alone in their room and are avoiding school.
These situations may seem like common adolescent behaviours. However, they may also be the signs that a young person is thinking of suicide. In both of these situations, thoughts of suicide may be present, or they may not.
Trust your instincts. Does your child or youth seem different? Is something about their behaviour troubling? Seek support if you are unsure. Pay attention to the signs that someone may be thinking of suicide.
Behaviours, especially changes in behaviour that are linked to suicidal thoughts may include:
- mood changes, for example sad when they are usually happy, getting angry, annoyed easily, being really happy when they are usually down
- withdrawing from friends and activities they used to enjoy
- increased and/or heavy use of alcohol or other drugs or substances
- reckless risk taking, such as doing dangerous stunts, driving while drunk
- engaging in self-injury
- increased irritability or aggressiveness
- skipping school
- overly preoccupied with death and suicide (for example writing about it, drawing pictures about death)
- body language—even if they say they’re fine, they may show their true thoughts and feelings through their gestures and facial expressions
Things you hear them say that may be linked to suicidal thoughts include:
- Talking or joking about suicide: “I just want to off myself.”
- “I wish I was dead.”
- “Nothing will ever get better.”
- “Nothing ever goes right for me.”
- “What’s the point in anything anymore?”
- “All of my problems will end soon.”
- “No one can help me.”
This is a list of common signs. What’s most important is to notice any worrisome changes, regardless of whether they are on this list. Trust your instincts.
What can be done?
Once you’ve recognized signs that suicide may be something your child or youth is thinking about, the next step is to make space for a conversation about what you’re noticing. Honest, respectful dialogue and support are key to preventing suicide. Opening up the lines of communication is the first step in helping a loved one.
- Acknowledge that you’re worried and let them know why you are concerned. Ask open-ended questions to help them talk about what’s going on for them, such as “I’ve noticed you are feeling sad quite a bit. Can we talk about what’s going on?”
- Ask about suicide directly, showing care and concern.Let them know what you’ve noticed that has you concerned they might be thinking about suicide. “You seem really down and are talking a lot about feeling worthless. I heard you say you wish you were dead. Sometimes when people are feeling this way, they are thinking of suicide. Are you thinking about suicide?”
- Asking about suicide in this way shows that you are paying attention, that you care and that you are taking the situation seriously. It will not give them the idea and does not increase the risk of a suicide attempt.
If you notice the signs of suicide, but feel that you cannot ask them directly about suicide, please reach out to a family member, friend, suicide help line - 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or mental health professional for support. It’s important a caring adult opens up a safe, supportive conversation with them about the possibility of suicide and help them build a plan for safety.
What to do if your child or youth says they are having thoughts of suicide
- Take a deep breath and stay calm. Tell your child or youth that you are glad they told you.Take them seriously.
- Listen carefully and without judgement to what they say, even if it’s difficult to hear about or understand fully.
- Let them speak without interruption. Try not to fix their problems or provide counselling.
- Ask if they have a suicide plan. People are usually at higher risk if they have a specific plan.
- Encourage your child or youth to talk to a mental health professional. “I’m glad we are talking about this. Let’s look together for a professional that can help.”
If your child or youth does not want to talk to a mental health professional, let them know why it’s important and tell them in a caring way that you need to do so regardless. “I hear that you don’t think you need to talk with a professional, however, it’s really important so I can help support you better, and so we’re not alone in this. It really matters.”
Stay with your child or youth if they are feeling unsafe. If they have a safety plan, review the strategies for keeping safe with them.
If you feel they are at immediate risk of harm or suicide, please call 911 or take your child or youth to the nearest hospital. Do not drive them if they are violent or may interfere with the safe operation of your vehicle. In this situation, call 911.
What can be done about suicidal thoughts and behaviours?
Mental Health professionals, such as a clinical counsellor, can conduct an assessment and develop a plan for safety, which will include things that a person can do to help themselves cope, as well as ongoing resources to address the problems underlying their thoughts of suicide. If there are mental health challenges, medications and treatments, such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), can be used which have shown good success in dealing with mental health challenges and thoughts of suicide. In many cases, there is no ‘magic pill’ or easy solution that makes suicidal thoughts go away. Likely recovery will take time, and there may be continued suicidal thoughts. Be aware of ongoing suicidal thoughts and be prepared to ask about suicide as needed.
For more guidance in carrying out a conversation with a child or youth about suicide, visit this online resource: How to talk to a child or youth about suicideby The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.
Tips for Caregivers
It’s natural to feel shocked, confused, guilty, frustrated or angry when you find out someone you love is thinking of suicide. While attending to the emotional needs of a child or youth in our life, we might overlook our own well-being. Supporting someone with thoughts of suicide isn’t something to deal with on your own. Be realistic and acknowledge boundaries in your role as a parent or caregiver. You may find talking to someone you trust particularly helpful—a friend, partner or mental health professional. If you’d rather keep things private, you can also get support from telephone and online services, such as
- 1-800-SUICIDE Helpline (1-800-784-2433)
- a local crisis line
- online chat through youthinbc.com (12-24 years) and CrisisCentreChat.ca (25+ years)
- a counsellor through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or privately
It can be helpful to take some time out for yourself to do the things that make you feel comforted. It may feel selfish, but it’s important to remember that you’re best able to support others when you’re taking care of yourself. Showing the child or youth in your life that you’re willing and open to look after yourself and get help through a tough time models the importance of seeking help and prioritizing mental health and self-care. As practicing self-care often includes connection with friends, family, pets, spiritual practice or time in nature, this also models the value of connectedness, which is shown to be linked to overcoming thoughts of suicide.
Where to from here?
If your child or youth is at immediate risk—if they have done something to try and kill themselves or they are threatening to do so—call 911 or go to the local hospital.
If it is not an immediate emergency, there are other options for support. If possible, seek agreement from the child or youth in your life to get help from another source.
- Connect with a mental health professional.
- Call the BC Suicide Helpline 1-800-763-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE).This service is available 24 hours, seven days a week across the province. This free service is a priority line answered by staff or volunteer crisis responders that provides safety planning and follow-up support to help with short-term safety while connecting them to longer-term resources. You can phone yourself or with your child or youth.
- If you have access to a family doctor, book an appointment, and if possible attend with your child or youth.
Seek your child or youth’s help in finding professional support, if possible. Suggest resources and ask them what they feel would be most helpful for them. It is important to remember that having thoughts of suicide can be a common experience and that accessing support and building positive, life-affirming connections are important to help prevent thoughts from becoming actions.