Talking to Young People About Suicide
If a young person in your care has an active suicide plan you should present with them to your nearest A&E for immediate support.
According to Time to Change around 20% of people will experience suicidal feelings in their lifetime.
There are a lot of misconceptions about suicide and understanding them are vital if we are to adequately respond to the issue. Both suicide and self-harm behaviours are increasing among young people.
But it’s worth noting that suicide is not a selfish act, instead, it is a desperate response to cope with extreme emotional distress and pain.
It’s important to remember that there’s a big difference between individuals having a definitive action plan to end their life because they feel they can’t cope versus dealing with the typical challenges life throws at them.
Sometimes young people may appear to overstate their feelings, it’s always important to listen and not dismiss these feelings, seemingly small problems still warrant your attention.
In any case, when responding to a disclosure of suicidal ideation from a young person, it’s helpful to keep your emotions to yourself and process them afterwards.
Many young people will fear intense emotional reactions from caregivers in their life- this may be a barrier to them revealing difficult feelings in the future.
Facts on Suicide from Samaritans:
● Suicide is the biggest killer of young people in the UK
● In 2018, 759 young people took their own lives in the UK and ROI
● 75% of these deaths are among young males but the suicide rate for young females is at its highest rate on record.
● Suicide related internet use was found in 26% of deaths for those under 20
‘High intensity’ feelings can leave someone feeling exhausted, particularly if they are recurring however, these feelings are usually transient.
Unfortunately, this is hardly obvious to young people in this mind frame, who may be struggling to think clearly. It can be helpful to highlight that there are supports, other more positive ways to cope and techniques to help them feel better; even though it doesn’t feel or look that way right now.
How to Lead a Conversation on Suicide
Acknowledge the issue, the emotions behind it and how hard the young person is finding things. Resist the temptation to say ‘everything will be fine’- this might make you feel better, but it undermines and can dismiss the feelings of young people in your care. In these moments, focusing on their feelings and thoughts is vital.
For example, avoid saying:
“Sometimes we feel sad, it’s no big deal. It’s all in your head don’t worry”
“I can hear that you’re finding things so hard right now that it’s making you want to end your life. I want you to know you can always come talk to me, I’m here to support you with these difficult feelings”
The importance of being honest about the issue of suicide cannot be understated. If the issue is hidden and not talked about it can leave children and young people in our care feeling invisible, unheard and immensely vulnerable. Hiding the truth from young people can impact the trust they feel in your relationship. Talking openly about the subject will not make it more likely to happen, it will mean that you are properly able to support the young person and diffuse the crisis.
Tips for explaining suicide to young people:
● It’s best to avoid methods, and detailed information on ‘how’ someone might end their life
● It’s better to focus on the pain and suffering, and what a young person could do if they felt very sad or low
● Focus on the fact that someone has ‘died’- ‘by suicide’ because they weren’t thinking clearly due to mental illness.
Younger children will respond well to clear language such as:
“This person killed themselves and their body has stopped working. This was because they were very sad and in a lot of pain, they didn’t want to suffer anymore”.
Don’t wait to start the conversation. If a suicide has happened in a young person’s community, or if a celebrity attempts or dies by suicide, you should use this as an opportunity to talk to them about the issue. Don’t be afraid to have the conversation, it’s likely that young people will have lots of thoughts and feelings, which should be explored carefully.
Using open-ended questions will help you explore what they know about the story and allow you to fill in the blanks without revealing too much information that may distress them. Keeping your simple and short allows young people in your care to direct the conversation with their questions.
Critically, you should casually explore what a young person would do if they felt isolated, sad and like they wanted to hurt themselves. Check that they know who they could speak to, and where they could seek help.
Keep in mind that when a traumatic event is breaking news, the information can come quickly through social media streams. Advising young people to take a break from the internet for a few hours can help them feel less overwhelmed.
Using opportunities such as these as ‘teachable moments’ can greatly empower young people to realise and access the supports around them.
“I saw on the news that someone died in our area, it’s really sad.”
“What did you hear about what happened to [person]?”
“How do you feel about what happened, is there anything I can do to support you?”
“If you felt sad and low, who could you talk to?”
“I really care about you, and I’m always here for you it means a lot to me that we can be honest with each other about everything.”
Signposting to Supports
Support for Young People:
Young Minds (Information and Advice)
Young Minds (Crisis Messenger)
Support for Parents:
Young Minds (Parents Helpline)
Support for Teachers:
NSPCC Child Protection Helpline
Mental Health Foundation (Mental Health Guide for Teachers)