Suicidal Youth and Their Families: Overcoming Barriers to Receiving Help

Nadine Kaslow, PhD, 2013 President-Elect, American Psychological Association

Setting the Stage

  • What are the common myths about suicide in children and adolescents?

  • If I suspect my child is feeling suicidal, what should I do?

  • How can schools and communities work together to prevent suicide?

Top Takeaways 

1. Be knowledgeable about the truths that dispel the common myths about teen suicide.
  • Suicide in young people is a serious and prevalent problem. 

• It is the third-leading cause of death for 10-24 year olds.

• More than one in every 10 high school students have attempted suicide. 

• Almost 20 percent of high school students think about suicide. 

• Girls think about and attempt suicide more than boys, but boys die by suicide about four times as often as girls. 

  • Youth who threaten suicide must be taken seriously as they are not just looking for attention. 

• Talk to your child to see if they are thinking about suicide. Doing so will not make them harm or kill themselves. 

• Unfortunately, there are not full-proof warning signs that make it clear if someone is going to kill him or herself. 

• Some youth think about suicide long and hard before ending their life, but others are impulsive in their decision to take their own life.

2. Be aware of the risk factors for suicide.
  • Recent or serious loss (e.g., death, family divorce, health problems, economic problems) 

  • Prior suicide attempt(s) 

  • Depression, hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, shame, helplessness, anxiety or extreme mood swings 

  • High risk behaviors 

  • Increased alcohol or drug use 

  • Bullying by peers or being a bully 

  • Child abuse or neglect

  • Witnessing violence in the home 

  • Mental illness, including suicide, in the family

3. Pay attention to resilience or protective factors.
  • Positive self esteem 

  • Positive coping and problem solving 

  • Sense of purpose in life 

  • Family support, closeness and good community 

  • Peer support and friendships 

  • Cultural beliefs that promote healthy living

4. Know what to say to your child.
  • Talk to them in a calm and non-accusatory way. 

  • Let them know you care about them and you love them.

  • Convey to them how important they are to you. 

  • Focus on your concern for their well-being. 

  • Make statements that convey you have empathy for their stress. 

  • Encourage them to get professional help and reassure them that help is available and they will not feel like this forever.

5. Know what to do to help prevent suicidal behavior in your child. 
  • Prioritize interacting with them in positive ways. 

  • Increase their involvement in positive experiences. 

  • Monitor appropriately your child's whereabouts and communications (i.e., texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) with the goal of keeping them safe. 

  • Get involved and become aware of your child's friends and communicate regularly with other parents in your community. 

  • Limit your children's access to guns, knives, alcohol, prescription pills and illegal drugs. 

  • Communicate regularly with your child's school to ensure optimal safety and care for your child in the school setting.

6. Recognize when you need to seek professional help for your child. 
  • Be safe not sorry — take appropriate action when needed to protect your child. 
  • Recognize these warning signs and take them seriously- not as a cry for attention. 

• Talking about suicide or wishing they were dead 

• Planning for suicide  

• Making final arrangements (e.g., writing a suicide note, preparing final instructions, giving away prized possessions) 

• Being preoccupied with death 

• Drastic changes in habits (e.g., sleep, eating, hygiene) 

• Changes in social functioning (social isolation, peer conflict, bullying) 

• Changes in educational functioning (dropping grades, skipping school, conflicts with teachers) 

  • Take action when you have a feeling that something is not right. 
  • Notice warning signs in your child, including worsening of these signs. 
  • Be aware of your child's risk factors for suicide.
7. How to get help for your suicidal child
  • Talk with your child first about your concerns, including asking him or her directly about suicidal thoughts, the value of therapy and possibly medication. 

  • Address your concerns with other important adults in your child's life. 

  • Discuss your concerns with your child's health care provider to get appropriate mental health referrals. 

  • Talk with people in the school who can provide support and guidance for your child and who may be able to assist with referrals. 

  • Be willing to participate in therapy with your child. 

  • Call 911 or take your child to a hospital in cases of an emergency. 

  • Find a mental health provider that has experience with suicidal youth. 

  • Select a mental health provider with whom your child feels comfortable and with whom you feel comfortable.

8. Partner with schools and the community to prevent suicide.
  • Work with schools to ensure that educational suicide prevention programs are offered. 

  • Collaborate with schools on the development of peer gatekeeper programs that help identify at-risk peers and encourage them to seek help. 

  • Work with local sections of national suicide prevention organizations to have optimal suicide prevention programming in your community.

9. Have a plan for helping your child if he/she is worried about a suicidal friend. 
  • Tell your children/teenagers that if a friend says that they are going to kill themselves, they should inform a trusted adult (i.e., parent, school nurse, or guidance counselor) to get professional help. 

  • Remind your child that they should not have to decide if their friend's threat is credible. 

  • Remind them not to keep it a secret.

10. Get support if you lose a child to suicide.
  • Remember at your time of sorrow and sadness, you are not alone. 

  • Reach out to family, friends, and other community members. 

  • Engage with support groups, locally and nationally (including online communities). 

  • Honor your loved one and remember how they lived. 

  • Volunteer to help other survivors. 

  • Participate in community activities to prevent suicide.

Learn More

For more information on suicide in children and adolescents, visit: