Suicide prevention: What every parent needs to know

A new report from Morneau Shepell finds Canadians' mental health declined for the eighth-straight month. Nov. 2020. TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Talking about mental health and suicide is a conversation parents and children continue to struggle with, says Kids Help Phone.

The organization released some daunting statistics about the issue in a report titled “Teens Talk 2016” on Thursday.

Based on the results of the organization’s survey of 1,319 teens aged 13 to 18, they found 22 per cent of respondents, seriously considered attempting suicide in the last 12 months. More than half (67 per cent) were girls; 47 per cent of teens didn’t speak to anyone about how they were feeling; what’s more, 16 per cent of teens are afraid to talk to their parents about suicide, while 11 per cent don’t know who turn to.

“What the survey is telling us is that suicidal thoughts are not uncommon among teens,” says Jennifer Murdoch, associate vice-president of counselling operations at Kids Help Phone. “This also gave us an opportunity to understand some of the reasons why teens are considering suicide and what we can do in order to help prevent that.”

Story continues below advertisement

Body image, relationships, violence at home or school, and bullying are just some of the things that plague today’s Canadian youth and impact their mental health.

So where do parents start when it comes to addressing these issues?

Global News spoke with parenting expert Alyson Schafer who offered some tips for families.

The conversation

“Parents are often afraid to talk to their kids,” says Schafer. “I think they believe that if they talk about [suicide], they think it’s going to happen. It’s really not the truth.”

It’s important that parents who sit down with their kids to talk about mental health approach the conversation as a listener, not a talker.

“When we say talk, we really mean to listen because what kids don’t need are parents talking, lectures and criticism… [Kids will] feel like they’re being judged.”
Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: Facebook rolls out suicide prevention tools to Canadians

What parents want to do instead, Schafer says, is share their concerns.

“You want to describe what you’re seeing [if you notice worrisome behaviour or signs] and invite [your kids] to talk,” she says. “It’s important that we tell them that if they don’t want to talk to [their parents], then they need to talk to someone. Preferably it won’t be a peer, but rather an adult who can bring that mature perspective like a professional or another family member.”

She adds, “Kids always want their parents to see them in the best light, so they may not want to talk about their body or boyfriend issues.”

Schafer also advises parents to keep the discussion open-ended, and to refrain from judgement and anger.

Story continues below advertisement
“We have to get across to kids that they will continue to spiral down if something different doesn’t happen,” she says. “They need to feel empowered…We have to motivate them to believe that help is possible, that they don’t have to feel [a certain] way and they deserve to be happy.”

Parents should have this conversation with their kids even if the suspicion or signs aren’t there — and don’t wait until it’s too late.

“Talk about mental health around the dinner table,” says Schafer. “Given that we know there’s a lifetime occurrence of 20 per cent that [Canadians] will experience a mental health issue over the course of their lifetime. The probability is that it’s going to touch your household.”

The signs of suicide intent

“Suicide is sort of like a child’s solution to a problem when they feel trapped and [desperate] and don’t feel like things are ever going to get better,” says Schafer. “It’s a real feeling of hopelessness.”

One thing kids may do, Schafer says, is make verbal threats. These should not be ignored.

Story continues below advertisement

“If they utter things like they wish they were dead, they’re going to kill themselves or that they don’t have any friends and things are never going to get any better, then storm out of the room, don’t brush it off,” she says. “These are warning signs.”

Parents may also notice that their child has a fascination with death.

“A lot of kids, for example, will blog about death or write poems about death,” Schafer says. “They might even romanticize it and say things like if they were dead then people would really miss them and love them.”

READ MORE: How parents can identify and deal with peer pressure, bullying

Other things Schafer says parents should watch for are:

  • Increased drug or alcohol use. Either may be used for self-soothing purposes.
  • Getting rid of things. Teens thinking about suicide may engage in tearful goodbyes as well as give their stuff away — this may signal that they are preparing a plan.
  • Signs of depression. According to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, sleeping issues, weight gain or loss, agitation or sluggishness, a loss of interest in hobbies and people are just a few of the possible symptoms of depression.

Advice for parents and teens

When it comes to noticing the signs, having the conversation or seeking out resources, Schafer says it’s important for parents to take the situation seriously.

Story continues below advertisement
“Don’t brush it aside as a kid just acting out or being blue,” she says. “Even if they utter [something you think is inconsequential], don’t brush it away.”

If a child is suicidal, parents should also speak with their family physician or a mental health professional about their concerns.

“We need to remember that the change needs to come from the child themselves,” says Schafer. “So it’s really parents acting as the conduit to encourage the child to seek out professional help. We don’t expect for parents to act as counsellors, but you certainly can’t stand idly by. So if you can’t motivate your child to get professional help then you yourself need to get professional counselling on how you can be the most supportive you can be.”

As for teens, Schafer says there is hope.

“Things do get better and there is help,” says Schafer. “It’s a matter of talking to somebody — anybody — and knowing that they’re not alone. These things do improve.”

Story continues below advertisement
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911. 911 can send immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868  all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.

Sponsored content