What Can I Do For A Possibly Suicidal Child?

It is all too common to hear about a celebrity’s death by suicide (Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain) or a lonely student who feels there is no other way out. As educators and faith workers, you have a two-fold task of explaining public suicides to the young people you work with and recognizing the signs of suicidal thoughts and intent. While this topic can seem overwhelming and emotionally-charged, it’s important to be aware of the signs and resources available to protect our children’s future. In four out of five cases of completed suicides, there were clear warning signs that preceded the act, according to The Jason Foundation. By knowing about the warning signs, and knowing where to turn for help, you can play a key role in preventing another suicide attempt.

According to The Jason Foundation’s Parent Resource Program, suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-24. On average an estimated 3,041 adolescents in grades 9-12 attempt suicide each day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 16% of high school students reported considering attempting suicide in the last year; 13% reported making a suicide plan and 8% said they tried to carry out that plan. These statistics are not meant to scare you – but they do emphasize how relevant this issue is to anyone working with young people.

Who Is At Risk for Suicide?

According to the CDC, those who are at risk for suicide attempts or completed suicide include anyone with a family history of suicide, a history of depression or other mental illnesses, incarceration, access to weapons or lethal drugs, and isolation. While these risk factors do not necessarily predict that a child will attempt or complete suicide, they can indicate who may be at an increased risk.

What Are The Warning Signs of Suicide?

In addition to knowing who is at risk, it is also important to recognize the signs that someone might be considering attempting suicide. According to The Jason Foundation, likely signs that a child is contemplating suicide include:

  • Direct or indirect suicide threats;
  • A history of previous suicide attempts;
  • Preoccupation with death or morbid things;
  • Struggling with depression; or
  • Making final arrangements or other statements that around ending their life.

If you hear a student make statements like, “I wish I could die,” “I’ll be glad when I’m dead,” or other statements alluding to their wish to no longer be alive — whether verbally or through social media — this could mean that they are contemplating suicide. Additionally, children who have become withdrawn or sad, demonstrate a lack of interest in activities they once enjoyed, or other exhibit other changes in behavior that differ from their typical selves may be at risk of suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Another factor to watch for is a child who has experienced a significant negative life change such as a death in the family, moving, or witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. And, if a child verbalizes or behaves in a way that shows they are making arrangements for attempting suicide — such as giving away their possessions or saying goodbye — this could be a sign that they are actively making a plan. Keep in mind that these signs are indications of possible suicidal intent, rather than a predictor.

Where to Find Help

If you notice these or other unusual behaviors, it is important to know how to help. After all, the wish to die is a sign that the child or adolescent is in pain and wants to escape that pain. However, for those to attempt or complete suicide, it feels like a last resort for them. They don’t necessarily wish to die, but they want to escape the pain they are feeling so intensely. Helping them access the resources they need may help them successfully resist the temporary but strong urge to “end it all,” and instead find hope and healing.

One helpful action to take is pulling the child aside to have a gentle conversation about what you’ve noticed. Let the child or adolescent know that you recognize their cry for help; this is crucial because it lets them know that they are not alone. By starting the conversation, you are letting them know that it is safe for them to come to you with their concerns. You can also offer them the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which they can confidentially call or chat online (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) with trained counselors. They can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741.

If you suspect that a child or adolescent may be actively making a suicide plan, it can be helpful to contact the parents or guardians to let them know so that they can help them access these resources (check first with your state laws, and determine if the child has a relationship with their parents). It is also helpful to connect the student with their school counselor, who has training in working with students who are experiencing suicidal thoughts. If a student is actively suicidal (has a plan, has the means to implement that plan, and expresses intent to carry out the plan), it may be most appropriate to refer them to either the local emergency center or a local mental health crisis center for an evaluation.

It can be scary when you recognize the signs of someone who is at risk for attempting suicide, but you don’t have to be overwhelmed or intimidated that child or adolescent is crying out for help and you can be the person to provide it. Be the first step in helping them access the many resources available to help find hope, effective support and treatment. With this information, you can empower yourself to support a child or adolescent in crisis and be part of a hopeful solution for them.

Julia Marie Hogan is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Chicago. In addition to her work as a psychotherapist, she leads workshops and writes on topics related to self-care, relationships and mental health. Her book It's Okay to Start with You is all about the power of embracing your worth and will be published in June. She is passionate about empowering individuals to be their most authentic selves. For more information, please visit juliamariehogan.com.

The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.