All the "difficult" conversations from my childhood are indistinct memories. There is one conversation, however, that is still sharply outlined and crystallized in my mind.
I was 11 years old, and it was the first day back to school after winter break. I had had a nightmare the night before, so I crawled into bed with my sister. My mom woke us early and sat at the foot of the bed wearing a calm mask to cover the heartbreak in her eyes, and though I could read her mood well, I definitely didn't understand it. She told me a girl from my after-school program, one I greatly admired, had "taken her own life." With no concept of what it meant to take a life, I mirrored my mother's reserved but palpable pain and then went on my way. What happened next is a bit fuzzier.
I remember the air was thin and the sky was cheerful, unlike most mornings when the city was shrouded in heavy fog, an inconsistency that felt cruel. I remember rushing out of the car and into my teacher's arms, ready to report the news I'd heard (a flippant announcement of my friend's death that pierces me with a surge of profound guilt each time I think of it). Sensing my cluelessness but not my shock, she explained suicide to me differently. She removed the cloak of safety my mother tried to wrap me in that morning and the blunt blow of her words split me open. It wasn't just the delivery that shattered my world; it was the actual act of suicide and the wake of despair it left.
Suicide never gets less painful to process; that familiar feeling—which is too endlessly complex in its devastation to name—is a bellied ache each time. But I'm not here to articulate the inarticulable; there are ways to talk about it, and we should talk about it.
To honor all the lives lost to suicide, to support the loved ones and communities left behind, to destigmatize this public health concern, and to take part in Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we reached out to professional psychologist Deepika Chopra, PsyD, to learn how to talk to kids about suicide. Read on her for advice.
Understanding the Scale
Before suicide touches someone personally, it can feel remote and even irrelevant to a child's own life. But as Chopra tells us, it's easier to understand the importance of talking about it once one sees the scale of the issue. At a glance, suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth between the ages of 10 and 34, and there were almost twice as many suicides as there were homicides in 2016. Further, national surveys indicate that as many as 18% of high school students admit to thinking about suicide, and just under 10% admit to making an attempt.
The truth is that talking about it in a mindful way before it comes up (when possible) can set the groundwork a supportive, open, and honest dynamic. Chopra points out, "There has been this myth surrounding the idea that if you talk about suicide you will have been a part of planting the idea or the seed into someone's head that wasn't already there," and while that's a valid concern, it isn't necessarily true. "The best thing you can do is be a part of the prevention process, bringing up the topic well before you ever really feel you have to," she says. So let's talk about how to bring it up.
How to Prepare and Set the Tone
Avoid going into the conversation blindly. First and foremost, do some research on well-informed sites. Chopra recommends Suicide Prevention Resource Center, Society for Prevention of Teen Suicide, National Institute of Mental Health, CDC, and Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. These resources will equip you with the basic information and also offer some advice about the important signs to look for in their children’s behavior, thoughts, and emotions.
Chopra says it’s best to have something mindfully and intentionally prepared and practiced so you remain calm and communicate some everything you wanted to articulate in a neutral manner. While being calm is important, she also says it's essential to be honest with your kids. It's okay to mention that the topic of suicide makes you feel uncomfortable and why. "Kids have empathy and appreciation for your candor," she explains.
Chopra assures us that the key is to bring up the topic in a calm, non-confrontational way, similar to the way you'd you bring up other things that kids are at a risk for, like drug or alcohol usage, etc. The goal is to demystify the topic, which will open up a forum for safe discussion. The hope is that if they are ever grappling with a public figure's suicide, that of a friend, or their own suicidal thoughts, they will feel more able to come to you because you already gave them the welcomed, non-judgemental opening.
Where to Bring It Up
While there isn't a reliable formula for this, Chopra does have a few pointers about where and when to bring it up that help make the conversation more effective and healthy. "The best time to have these types of discussions are in the most normal, mundane environments and in some time of their day that isn't emotionally charged," she tells us. It'll vary for everyone, but an example could be a familiar car ride or a weekend lunch tradition.
It can also be helpful to bring up a movie or TV show that features the topic. Bringing it up in that fictional realm or even just in the context of pop culture and news events can make them more comfortable talking about sharing their own thoughts and feelings. In fact, "When a suicide takes place within the community or is televised on the news, and your kids are fully aware of it, this is a prime opportunity to have a non-confrontational, mindful, and intentional conversation about suicide," Chopra tells us.
What to Say
Part of the work you do ahead of time is to think of questions you might want to ask them. Of course, it shouldn't come across like a high-pressure interrogation by any means, but here are a few examples: What are your thoughts on suicide? Have people around you talked about it? Have you ever experienced thoughts of suicide yourself?
If you ask them questions, do your best to actively listen, pay close attention and respond with interest and concern but not panic. As Chopra emphasizes, it's important to normalize their responses even if they scare you.
How to Respond If They Bring It Up First
There is a chance that they'll bring up the topic before you get a chance to because of a tragedy in the community, they overheard someone else talking about it, or they saw it on TV. Even if you're taken aback, Chopra encourages you to remain neutral and empathic and not display any extreme opinions about a person who has committed suicide in one way or another. Depending on how much you know personally or otherwise about the topic, you can choose to have a long conversation now, or you can revisit it later once you've had more time to think and prepare, but do follow up.
When you're ready to revisit the topic with them, consider sharing some statistics and reading material that helps them understand their questions and go through it together. Chopra says to focus on the underlying causes and provide them with resources and examples of real people they can talk about it.
What to Do If They Imply Suicidal Thoughts
Before you jump to conclusions, try to dig a bit deeper and gain a little more insight into what they're trying to communicate. "If they give you any indication of suicidal thoughts, try and help them put words to the root issues underneath," Chopra advises. Perhaps it's feelings of unhappiness, existential fears, and anxieties, external pressures and an inability to cope. Do your best to put it in kid-friendly terminology that they will relate to, and then you can reevaluate in private.
As Chopra says, "Reacting in an overly alarming manner can reactively close them off, so as hard as it is to receive heartbreaking and frightening information, it is crucial to remain nonjudgmental and calm" and then present them with some options. It's a difficult balance between vigilance and empathy, though, because it's also crucial to be present and express care so they feel heard and seen.
"Sometimes kids are more comfortable speaking to their pediatricians, school counselors, even friends' parents more than their own parents," says Chopra. Encouraging them to follow up and confide in someone is a better route than being hurt that you may not be their first choice. If you feel even the slightest bit of discomfort, don't hesitate to seek professional help and always revisit and continuously check in with your kids.
How to Model De-Stigmatizing Behavior
Of course, any topic like this won't be a one-and-done deal, so another important way to encourage a culture of open communication, self-awareness, compassion, honesty, and love at home and beyond is to show them that talking about mental health is not taboo, mental illness is not a weakness, and seeking help when you need it is healthy and positive.
"Helping our children to understand that being a human can be beautiful but also can be tough and seeking help from parents, teachers, doctors, counselors, and friends is normal, healthy and a part of being human," Chopra says. At some point, we have all needed help, and if you find yourself in that position, taking a proactive approach can show your kids that it isn't embarrassing or a sign of failure.
Even if you don't regularly seek professional help, it's still good to normalize taking care of your mental health. Chopra recommends describing it to kids in the same way that they learn about the importance of taking care of their physical bodies—whether that is through sports, exercise, diet, skincare etc.
No matter how, when, and where you choose to raise the topic, the important thing, is that you've started the conversation.
Further Reading Material and Resources Below:
If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm or is anxious, depressed, upset, or needs to talk, there are people who want to help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For international resources, contact the International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide.