For many of us, it’s impossible to imagine what it must be like to want to end your life, as we spend so much energy and time doing all we can to survive. This can make it difficult to even contemplate thinking, let alone talking about, the subject with someone we know.
Compounding this is the well-established idea that talking about suicide somehow promotes the act, or at least could encourage someone to kill themselves. It’s important to know that this isn’t the case, and if anything, allowing someone to share how they feel can be an effective antidote.
Ian Russell, father of Molly Russell who took her life in 2017, said he wished he had talked to his daughter about suicide. Following the results of the inquest into her death, he urged other parents to speak directly to their children if they have concerns about their mental health.
This may seem like a daunting challenge, as many parents – me included – can find it hard to get anything more than a monosyllabic response at times from our offspring. But as Ian Russell suggests, it is critical to cross the generational divide and keep the lines of communication open.
There is no magic way of doing this as relationships vary, but there are some things to consider.
Some parents and children might find it easier to talk about thoughts of suicide in the third person. So rather than asking your son or daughter whether they have ever thought about suicide, it could be framed as: “Have you heard of others who have thought about taking their lives?” Or: “What would you do if a close friend shared thoughts of suicide with you?”
Finding the right time and place can make a difference, as can avoiding making a big thing of the conversation. See if you can make it more of a casual chat, perhaps linked to the news or something you know interests them. Some of the best conversations I have had with my children have been when they were learning to drive, trapped in the car with me for an hour and with an activity to distract them. You will know what your safe place is and when you think it’s possible to have a more relaxed discussion.
Lots of things can seem obvious to us as we get older, but it’s worth remembering and checking out what information a young person has about mental health and suicide. For Molly Russell and thousands of teenagers like her, their go-to place when curious is the internet. Although there are some amazing websites and organisations that can provide support, it doesn’t take long to come across ones that are less helpful, as Molly Russell found all too easily.
So, it’s important not to assume that a young person has all the facts, and even if they do, check they have a chance to reflect or talk through their interpretation of what they have found about mental health and suicide.
The perception of time changes with age, so it is also helpful to remember how compressed time is when you are young, and how urgent everything can feel. This can add to the sense of crisis, making it all the more important as a parent to give your time in listening and being available. Knowing things can change with time is something that takes years and experience to fully understand in a world that thrives on instant reaction.
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The risk of suicide rises with age from 0.4 per 100,000 in those aged 10-14 years, to 6.4 per 100,000 for those aged 15-19. As with conversations about drugs, it’s important to calibrate conversations about suicide and mental health to the age of a child. Even with young children, it helps to answer any questions they have directly, as trying to distract them can be misinterpreted as disinterest. Let them know they can trust you when they want to talk about things like bullying or other children who have early signs of problems with their mental health.
As teenagers, it is more likely that they will encounter peers with mental health problems, including thoughts of suicide. Encouraging them to share their thoughts and feelings without judging can be difficult because instinctively, we want to protect our children and those they are concerned about.
The one thing we can all do is recognise that treating suicide among younger people as a taboo topic hasn’t made it go away. Ignoring suicide won’t reduce the incidence, and all the evidence we have suggests that talking about these troubling feelings and thoughts can go a long way to alleviating them – and can potentially save lives.
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are in another country, you can go to befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.
Ian Hamilton is a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York
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