Teen suicide is a tragedy that no kid, parent, educator, or community member ever wants to experience. And yet, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the facts are stark: it has become the third leading cause of death in 10-24 year olds.
To make matters worse, teens are likely to hear more about each of these deaths than ever. Twenty years ago, a suicide might have rocked a particular community; today, thanks to the Internet, the world can seem like a village, and not a happy one either. According to a 2007 national survey instruments administered through the Centers for Disease Control, 15% of American teens reported seriously considering suicide.
If you’ve got a teenager, the chances are high that at some point, you’re going to need to do some straight talking about suicide. This is not to say that your child will be suicidal himself. But research shows that any teen suicide will affect not only the victim, but any survivor, leaving hard questions and feelings in its wake. And teens are especially vulnerable to “contagion”—copycat “suicide clusters” in which several kids will kill themselves in similar ways over weeks or months.
Clearly, this sounds like a heavy burden on any community. But, say these same experts, there’s good news here. National mental health experts have added a whole new term to anti-suicide efforts: “postvention.” Once a teen knows about a suicide, researchers have found, parents, teachers, and other important adults can make all the difference. Handle it well, they say, and the community can grieve, heal, and move on in health. Here are experts’ top do’s and don’ts:
- DO tell the truth. With the best of intentions, parents often want to “sugar coat” harsh reality. Instead, says Rich Lieberman, M.A., chair of the Emergency Assistance Team of the National Association of School Psychologists and director of the Suicide Prevention unit for the 800,000 student Los Angeles Unified School District, “We need to be 100% honest with kids. It’s the foundation of trust. We tell it straight: ‘That girl hung herself. It wasn’t an accident. She died by suicide.’”
- DO NOT probe or publicize details of “how” and “why’s.” While honesty is the best policy, there is, also, a crucial line to draw: for teens, especially those at risk, details can inspire destructive thoughts such as “Oh, that’s how I can do it, too.” Similarly, says Bill Pfohl, Professor of Psychology at Western Kentucky University and, together with Lieberman, co-chair of the National Association of School Psychologists’ Emergency Assistance Team, we need to avoid minimizing rumors such as “he got a bad grade on his test.” In fact, real causes are always deep and complex. As Pfohl explains, “Simply and elegantly I try to say, ‘They took that answer with them. We may never know for sure.”
- DO ask about feelings. A lot. While gory method details are a no-no, say both Pfohl and Lieberman, talking about your teen’s feelings is an absolute must. “Don’t just throw this out casually over hot dogs,” counsels Pfohl. “Be specific here. Ask directly how your kid is feeling. Ask if they’ve thought about suicide or if they have a plan. Ask several times after the event, not just on the day of it. You’re not putting any ideas in their minds. It’s actually just the opposite.”
- DO NOT minimize a teen’s suicidal thoughts. In 30 years of work with teens, Lieberman has often heard parents say, “She’s just saying this to get my attention.” The answer, Lieberman says, is “Yes!” Suicidality is scary, and kids almost always want to be stopped. So If your teen does reveal suicidal thoughts, says Lieberman, there is just one response: “Take immediate action.” Consult your school psychologist, school counselors, doctor, clergy, or a mental health professional. Just don’t stand by.
- DO monitor your teen’s Internet network. “In the old days, “ says Pfohl, “teens used to turn to a close friend, a parent, or a trusted adult. But nowadays we’re finding a new trend: kids turn to MySpace and Facebook.” Parents’ best plan? Be vigilant: “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know what Facebook page they’re on?”
- DO NOT make permanent community memorials. If a beloved teen has died by suicide, caring folks may move immediately to create memorials such as plaques or tree groves. Sadly, explains Pfohl, “This is a no-no. It just makes suicide look too good.” Instead, he counsels, “contribute to suicide prevention.” Lieberman recommends four appropriate ways that your family might contribute to memorializing a teen who has died by suicide: “First, attend the funeral. Second, reach out to the family and help them in any way you can. Third, donate to a suicide prevention effort in the community, such as a hot-line or counseling agency. Finally, implement a living memorial: a program designed to address risk factors, such as a peer counseling program, or a bully, depression, or suicide prevention program.
- DO reach out to your community. Let’s face it: suicide, and the serious depressions that so often precede it, are still taboo discussion topics in many of our communities, even though, as Lieberman says, “truly, depression is the silent epidemic in the schools today.” Your teen may shut the door to discussion at first, but it’s a rare teen who doesn’t want to talk to someone. Stay connected, counsel both Lieberman and Pfohl, and don’t hesitate to call upon community resources such as school staff, clinics, and clergy.
In the end, of course, even the most valiant efforts may not work perfectly. But research strongly suggests that when adults can work together and listen deeply to kids, the community really can make the difference for teens. Pfohl says it this way: “In postvention, you’re really doing prevention after all.”