Trigger Warning: Includes details about a child’s suicide.
By all accounts, 13-year-old Tyler Nichols was a well-loved, popular boy. On March 21, 2013, the eight-grader from Southgate, Michigan, left his first period class at school and went to the restroom where he fatally shot himself with a handgun. According to his mom, Tyler began exhibiting some symptoms of depression only shortly before his suicide. He got access to his father’s handgun, which was stored unlocked and loaded in his dad’s bedside table. He is just one of the average 500 children lost to suicide by gun each year in America.
No one wants to think about kids and suicide, but we need to. While we tend to think of suicide as something that becomes a problem in the teenage years, the CDC announced this August that, on average, a child under age 13 takes their own life every five days. Children as young as 5 years old have been documented to have died by intentional suicide. In short, it’s never “too early” to start thinking about this issue.
September is National Suicide Awareness Month, and we, as parents, need to listen and get more informed. We need to familiarize ourselves with what we can do to keep our families safer, as well as the possible warning signs of suicide. Not all suicides are preventable. There is no fool-proof “cure.” But we can and must remove the shroud of silence and fear that keeps us from having important conversations, helping those who need help, and comforting those who have suffered the loss of a child.
By talking about suicide, we help to dispel the stigma attached to suicide and mental health challenges. Dorothy Paugh, who lost both her father and son to suicide, actively speaks out about her experiences. “I refuse to be silent anymore. Stigma just makes those with mental illness suffer in silence.”
Safety is deterrence.
It’s important to note that the two most powerful actions you can take to deter suicide in kids is to remove access to means of carrying out an attempt. Suicide is often an impulsive act, and people who survive a suicide attempt are unlikely to try again.
Remove or safely store guns.
Research has shown that the presence of a gun in the home triples the risk of death by suicide. While suicide by gun accounts for only 40% of total suicide attempts in kids, it is by far the most lethal method, with those using a gun dying 90% of the time, whereas suicide attempts using all other means result in death less than 10% of the time — exactly flipped.
So the single most important thing that you can do to prevent your child dying from suicide is either to not have a gun in the home or to store it locked, unloaded, and separate from the ammunition. In the U.S., more than 1 in 3 children live in a household with a gun, and only half of those households report that their guns are stored locked. This is just one more reason to ask whether there is a gun, and how it is stored, before your child goes to spend time at someone else’s house — even a relative.
Dorothy Paugh suggests, “If people who know a friend or family member is troubled ask them if they are thinking of suicide and temporarily remove guns from the home, it may be awkward, but that’s better than attending their funeral and agonizing over what more might have been said or done. Silence serves the undertaker.”
Keep medication locked up.
Store all medications — even over-the-counter medications — where kids cannot access them. While suicide by overdose or other methods may not be as lethal, it can still cause serious long-term effects like liver damage. Lots of us who have little kids at home have our household childproofed to the nines, but even once kids get older, it’s important to keep all medications locked up and out of access to kids — whether the kids are 5 or 15.
Look for behavioral signs.
While there is no absolute way of predicting which kids might be more likely to commit suicide, some kids may show warning signs that parents should take seriously. According to Jocelyn Miller, PhD, a Wisconsin child psychologist with over 34 years of clinical practice, parents, friends, teachers, and other community members should keep an eye out for the following symptoms, which should be taken seriously and addressed. If your child is exhibiting any of these symptoms, please consult your pediatrician, primary care provider, or mental health practitioner immediately.
“Kids who cut or self-injure are twice as likely to make an actual suicide attempt,” according to Miller. Keep a look out for scars, fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, burns, or other wounds, pulling out hair, persistent picking at or interfering with wounds. These may all be warning signs or symptoms of self-harm and should not be ignored.
We tend to think of suicide as a sign or symptom of ongoing depression, but Miller says that, in her experience, what depression “looks like” to others may be different from what we expect. “Depression doesn’t always manifest as straight sadness. Sometimes it manifests as moodiness, anger, irritability.” Notice your child’s moods, and try to keep avenues of communication open. If you notice persistent or sudden mood change, consult your child’s primary care provider or a mental health specialist.
3. “Better Off Dead”
We all know that kids (especially tweens and teens) can have dramatic reactions to everyday situations. It’s sometimes hard to judge what emotional turmoil or upheaval is a normal product of the maturation process, and what is perhaps a sign of needing more help. Miller suggest that parents need to watch for kids saying things like, “I’d be better off dead,” or “You’d be better off if I were dead,” or “Sometimes I wish I was dead.” “These kinds of statements should be taken seriously and explored more fully with the teen,” Miller says.
As far as talking with your child preventatively about suicide, Miller says, “Kids hear other kids at school talk about killing themselves fairly often, and so I recommend bringing it up in that context. ‘You might hear a friend say they just want to die sometimes, so here’s what to do.’ When talking about it in that context, you are doing preventative work with your child. You can add in there a comment like, ‘If you were ever to feel that way, who could you tell?’ Name four to five trusted adults or even older teens.” And Miller urges adults to realize that “it’s really important for parents to know they can intervene on behalf of someone else’s kid.”
4. Asking for Help
Not all kids will ask for help if they are feeling suicidal, but if your child says they feel like they need to talk to someone or want to see a counselor, Miller says, “Run, do not walk, to the nearest mental health care provider. Teens don’t say that unless they are in a great deal of distress. If they are asking to be taken in, it’s likely that there is a whole lot more to the story, or other things that you have no idea that are going on (as a parent), so take them in and don’t question.”
5. Relationship Troubles
People in general, not just kids, are more likely to commit suicide after the loss of a relationship. Since we know that suicide is often a spur-of-the-moment decision, keep a close eye on kids in the days and weeks after a breakup or relationship troubles. Console them and take their sadness seriously, and seek professional support if you think it could be helpful.
6. Knowing Someone Who Has Committed Suicide
Scientists and doctors do not know exactly why suicides seem to come in “clusters,” but it is well-established that kids who have a parent, relative, or friend who has died by suicide are more likely to attempt suicide themselves. Suicidal clustering is more prevalent for people age 25 or under, and has been reported in schools and social groups as well as triggered via media reports of suicides or the deaths of well-known figures by suicide.
If your child has experienced the death by suicide of someone, whether related or distant, it’s important to talk to them about it. Miller, the child psychologist, says that she reminds her patients that “death is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Talking with kids about their feelings and fears can help them develop strategies to deal with their sadness. Schools and other organizations should have plans to address the emotional stress of all those who might be affected by a suicide.
The Good News
There’s always a silver lining, even when talking about topics like this. The good news is that we, as parents, can keep our kids safer by storing guns and medications under lock and key, by looking out for signs or symptoms of emotional distress, and by seeking professional help, should we see the need.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has set a goal to lower the American suicide rate by an impressive 20% by 2025. It’s an ambitious goal, but fueled by research and proven techniques, it’s doable. Other organizations, like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, provide educational resources like their BeSMART program to help parents keep kids safe not only from suicide by firearm, but from all types of gun violence. The Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors is continuing its work to reach out to survivors of suicide and offer them emotional support. These are just a few of the organizations trying to address the issues of child and teenage suicide and reduce the numbers of children and families affected.
With a little bit of knowledge, a whole lot of love for our kids, and by contributing to organizations doing the hard work, we can all help reduce the suicide rate, one child at a time.
To find an Out of the Darkness fundraising walk event for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention near you, visit afsp.donordrive.com.
To learn more about Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America’s Be SMART program, visit besmartforkids.org.
Connect with the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors at allianceofhope.org.
If you or someone you know is in need of support, text LINE to 741741 for support from a trained crisis counselor. Or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.