This is National Suicide Prevention Week, and this year it comes amid reports of increased suicides and depression during the pandemic. If you are parenting a child who is struggling with anxiety and depression, you may hear your child express thoughts of suicide. That heart-stopping moment will be terrifying, as it was for me the first time I heard it. Fortunately, there are many resources that can help us respond.
Passive Ideation or Active Plan
Most mental health experts distinguish between “passive ideation” and active plans. The former is a vague wish while the latter is a specific plan with intent. Both situations are serious, but they require different responses.
For non-crisis situations, experts recommend the following principles:
• Know the risk factors and warning signs
• Stay calm. This is a serious situation, but it is one that you can handle.
• Take your child’s statements seriously. Never dismiss what they say as just seeking attention. A young person may not actually want to be dead, but just express the pain that they are feeling. Any level of self-harm is dangerous, and all too many children have accidentally killed themselves.
• Focus on your concern for them and avoid saying anything that sounds like they are somehow broken. The typical teenager’s fear of being different from his or her friends extends to this level of anxiety & depression, and teens may be motivated to hide their feelings to avoid being singled out.
• Reassure them that these feelings will pass, and that help is available.
• Seek help from a good therapist. Experienced mental health professionals have been through this before, and they can help you and your child through this crisis as well.
If you believe your child is serious, or you are not sure, do what you need to protect him or her for the moment. You may need to take your child to an emergency room, or call law enforcement. Each state has different laws about how the mental health community will handle the situation once you get there. A good resource on various possibilities is the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
Prepare for the Long Haul
The first time you face this problem may be the only time you have to deal with it, or your child may struggle with it for a long time. I have had children resolve their issues after only one suicide threat, while others have spiraled in and out of suicide attempts for years. There is no way of predicting which situation your family will face. Expect good things from your child, but brace yourself for what may be a long journey.
• Take care of yourself. It is always easy in this sort of crisis to pour all of our resources into helping our children. However, we cannot help anyone if we exhaust our resources. Self-sacrifice is admirable, and in the short term may be essential. But do not let it become dangerous to your own mental health.
- Take care of your other relationships. When a child is in crisis, it is easy to overlook the needs of everyone else in the family. That reaction, although perfectly natural, is not fair to or healthy for the rest of the family. Whatever your anxious or depressed child needs in the short-term, do not let them become your only priority in the long term. Your other family members need you, too.
- Find other parents who have been through this crisis. You may feel that you are the only parent facing this problem, but you are not. Because of the stigma, and parents’ willingness to blame ourselves for our children’s problems, parents do not discuss suicide issues with each other. Look for a support group or online community that can walk you through practical ways to help your child. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, offers many resources for family members.
Given the levels of anxiety and depression that our young people are experiencing these days, any of us may encounter this very serious issue sooner or later. Let your child know that you will not give up on them, and that, if they do the work, you will make it through this together.